This week’s parasha enumerates the Leviim and sums up their duties:
עבדת משא I understand; the previous three paragraphs are all about which Leviim schlep what. But what is עבדת עבדה? The work of work? It’s obviously using polysemous meanings of עבדה, “the work of the service”. But what is it referring to?
The פשט appears to be “all the other work of the משכן”; Leviim can’t offer the sacrifices but they can be involved in other ways:
However, Rashi says it’s a specific kind of service, unique to the Levi’im: שירה:
The gemara brings other possible sources for the halacha that the sacrifices required שירה:
And another source:
And Rashi’s source:
And the gemara brings other proofs from throughout תנ״ך. שירה is important.
How did the שירה work?
It’s worth noting that the gemara its explanation of עבדת עבדה differently from Rashi. Rashi says עבודה לעבודה אחרת, the song serves the real service. The gemara says its עבודה שצריכה עבודה, the song is the service that needs to be served.
Another way to look at it is that in the Biblical idiom, '“עבדת עבדה” is like “הבל הבלים”, “שיר השירים” or “קודש הקודשים”. It is a superlative, “the highest service” that we are identifying with שירה. And that becomes obvious from a story in the Mishna:
This was a disaster, so much so that they had to institute a תקנה to prevent it ever happening again. It’s like the chazzandavened the wrong amidah. In fact, it’s exactly like that, which gives us a hint as to the nature of the שירה. Rav Soloveitchik distinuishes between the מעשה of a מצוה and its קיום. The former is the technical act that needs to be done; the latter is the underlying purpose, what the מצוה is meant to accomplish. (We talked about this in the shiur on The Halakhic Mind)
Our תפילות correspond to the קרבנות:
We usually see this as a kind of inferior substitute invented by חז״ל; since we cannot offer קרבנות, then we offer תפילות instead. Or worse:
But seeing שירה as “המטרה אשר צריכה עבודה אחרת שתאפשר את אמירתה” turns this around: the קרבנות exist to allow for תפילה. The קיום of our עבודה, whether קרבן or תפילה, is in our expression of dependence on הקב״ה and so both are versions of the same underlying רצון ה׳.
The mishna (תמיד ה:א) says that part of the verbal component of the קרבנות, what we are calling שורה, was ברכת העבודה, what we call רצה:
That is what the קרבנות were all about, and why the שירה, the תפילה associated with them, was so important.