This coming Shabbat we begin reading the Torah’s fourth book, Bamidbar, Numbers, so called because in this book the Jewish people are counted twice. This took place on the first day of Iyar (the second month– Nissan is the first), the year after they left Egypt. What was the occasion? Rashi explains (Bamidbar 1:1):
מתוך חיבתן לפניו מונה אותם כל שעה. כשיצאו ממצרים מנאן, וכשנפלו בעגל מנאן לידע מנין הנותרים. כשבא להשרות שכינתו עליהן מנאן. באחד בניסן הוקם המשכן, ובאחד באייר מנאם:
Because of His love for them, Hashem is always counting them. When they left Egypt, He counted them, and when they fell, sinning with the golden calf, He counted them to know how many remained. Now, when He came to rest His Divine Presence upon them (in the Tabernacle), He counted them again. In Nissan, they erected the Tabernacle, so in Iyar He counted them.
But how does Hashem’s counting His people reflect His love for them?
For anything in the universe to exist, Hashem must wish it to exist. If there was no positive energy coming from Hashem every second to hold every atom in the world together, the universe would fall apart, and all matter would dissolve into nothing. So, as the Creator and Maintainer of everything, Hashem knows the number of every single thing in the world, and doesn’t need to count it; He is giving it existence. Thus, the counting of the Jewish people was most certainly not to obtain their tally.
Nachmanides (Numbers 1:18) explains that Hashem’s counting conferred two direct benefits on the Jewish people: (1) That they themselves should know their numbers so that they would appreciate Hashem’s blessing to them. As it says in Deuteronomy (10:22),
(כב) בְּשִׁבְעִים נֶפֶשׁ יָרְדוּ אֲבֹתֶיךָ מִצְרָיְמָה וְעַתָּה שָׂמְךָ יְדֹוָד אֱלֹהֶיךָ כְּכוֹכְבֵי הַשָּׁמַיִם לָרֹב
22) With seventy souls your ancestors descended to Egypt, and now Hashem your G-d has made you abundant like the stars of heaven.
And (2) to receive a blessing straight from Moshe and Aharon, the two holiest people in the world.
The nation was not counted by head; rather, each person brought a half a shekel coin (the denomination at the time), and the half-shekels were counted. Moshe and Aharon stood in front of the Tent of Meeting, the Tabernacle, with the Prince of each tribe.
Nachmanides describes what happened:
לומר כי כאשר צוה אותם משה כן מפי הקב”ה נקהלו כל העדה כלם אל פתח אהל מועד, חוץ מערב רב אשר לא מבני ישראל המה כי ניכרים היו בהם מיום שיצאו ממצרים והנה הביאו כל העדה איש שקלו, ואמרו לפני משה והנשיאים, אני פלוני נולדתי לפלוני ממשפחת פלוני שהוא לשבט ראובן וזולתו, ומשה נותן שקלי כל שבט ושבט במקום מיוחד,
When Moshe told them that Hashem commanded him to count them, the entire nation gathered in front of the Tent of Meeting (The Tabernacle) … and each person brought his half shekel and said to Moshe and the princes of the tribes who were with him, “I am so-and-so, born to so-and-so from this-and-this family, from this and this tribe.” And Moshe would place the coins of each tribe in a designated place.
As Moshe received the coin from each person and inquired as to who he was, Moshe and Aharon would together look at him and bestow a blessing upon him. What a privilege it must have been to speak directly with Moshe and Aharon and to receive a blessing directly from them!
The verse (Deuteronomy 10:22) compares the Jewish people to the stars above. As far as the stars are concerned, Psalms (147:4) informs us:
(ד) מוֹנֶה מִסְפָּר לַכּוֹכָבִים לְכֻלָּם שֵׁמוֹת יִקְרָא:
4) He counts the number of the stars, naming all of them.
The Talmud (Berachot 32b) tells us that there are exactly 1,064,340,000,000,000,000 stars in the universe and yet, Hashem knows the “name” of each one. What is the idea of counting the stars, and yet, giving each one a name?
Our universe comprises stars that make up galaxies. There are trillions of galaxies in the universe, each comprised of billions of stars. Although a star looks to us like a small speck in the sky, it is really extremely large, often many times larger than our sun. Each star in a galaxy exerts a gravitational pull on all the others, and is a crucial part of the balance of stars in the galaxy. Thus, each star has a double role: It is both part of the multitude of stars that make up the galaxy, but it is also a very large and a substantial entity in and of itself. Hence, the number reflects its role in the galaxy whereas its name reflects its own unique greatness.
Similarly, every Jew has a role both as a member of the Jewish nation and as an individual with a unique personal mission based on who he is and his special relationship with Hashem.
This idea can be seen in the five different times the Jewish people were tallied in this parsha: (1) First, they were counted as members of their tribe, and a total given for each tribe. (2) The twelve tribes were then tallied for a grand total of 603,550 people, which were divided into four different camps of three tribes each: (i) The camp of Judah, with Yissachar and Zevulun, (ii) the camp of Reuven, with Shimon and Gad, (iii) the camp of Ephriam, with Menashe and Binyamin, and (iv) the camp of Dan, with Asher and Naftaly. (3) Each tribe was tallied upon joining their respective camp. (4) The total number in each camp was listed, even though we could have known this by just adding the total for each tribe in the camp, and (5) the number of people in all four camps was tallied equaling, once again, 603,550.
What is the meaning of all this redundancy? The answer is that each of these “countings” represents a different role that a person would assume. First, he is a member of his tribe, each of which had a specific mission. Second, each tribe vis-à-vis the other tribes, as they together comprise the entire Jewish nation. Third, each tribe joined with two others to serve in yet a different role, as a specific sector of the nation. Here, again, there would be two different roles, one vis-à-vis the other two tribes in the sector, and one as a member of their sector vis-à-vis the other three sectors. Finally, there is the roll of each sector as part of the whole nation.
One counts something because each item in the collection is precious. Take an art collector. Each piece in the collection is special and exemplifies a different facet of the art of painting. No two are alike, and there are no extras. The collector takes great care before adding a piece to his collection, ensuring that it is not “just another painting.” Each one must be “a find, a rare piece of art not commonly found, that illustrates a feature not extant in any other piece.” Hence, the larger the collection, the broader the scope of what art has to offer is represented. When a collector counts the pieces in his collection, he expresses his love for his art. He lovingly revels in every piece, contemplating its virtues, enjoying its beauty, and appreciating how it contributes to, and rounds out, his collection.
In a much greater sense, the Jewish nation is not just an assortment of different human beings thrown together haphazardly into an assemblage. Each Jew is hand-made, so-to-speak, by Hashem, with different virtues, features, and flaws, and each was designed to fill a specific need and role in the Jewish nation. No one is extra or unnecessary. The Jewish nation’s role in the world, to represent Hashem and make the truth of His existence known to all, is the purpose of creation. Each of us fulfills that mission by using our different virtues and features, while overcoming our flaws and shortcomings, to serve Hashem. This is what Hashem revels in, and why He repeatedly counts His people.
The tribe of Levi was counted separately and was excluded from the number of the twelve tribes. When counting the twelve tribes, only men ages 20-60, who were eligible for the army, were counted. Levites, however, were counted from one month and older. And even though they were counted from such an early age, they numbered only 22,000 people. This is considerably fewer than Menashe, the tribe with the fewest members, which had 32,200 people from 20-60 years of age. Most tribes had at least double that, and Yehuda had more than triple the number of people as did Levi. Why were Levi’s numbers so low?
Nachmanides explains that the Jewish people in Egypt received a special blessing from Hashem to have children. As it says in the verse (Exodus 1:12),
(יב) וְכַאֲשֶׁר יְעַנּוּ אֹתוֹ כֵּן יִרְבֶּה וְכֵן יִפְרֹץ
12) And the more they afflicted them, the more they multiplied and the more they spread out.
Because, however, the tribe of Levi was not subject to slavery in Egypt, that blessing did not apply to them and was only for those who were suffered with the backbreaking work.
So, why didn’t the tribe of Levi have to work in Egypt?
It started back when our forefather Yaakov went down to Egypt with his children. Maimonides (Laws of Idol Worship 1:3) writes:
ויעקב אבינו למד בניו כולם והבדיל לוי ומינהו ראש והושיבו בישבה ללמד דרך השם ולשמור מצות אברהם וצוה את בניו לא יפסיקו מבני לוי ממונה אחר ממונה כדי שלא תשכח הלמוד והיה הדבר הולך ומתגבר בבני יעקב ובנלוים עליהם ונעשית בעולם אומה שהיא יודעת את ה
Our forefather Yaakov taught all of his children Torah, and singled out his son Levi and appointed him to head the yeshiva. His job was to teach Hashem’s ways and how to keep the commandments that they had learned from Avraham. He (Yaakov) also commanded his other sons that the appointment of Levi as teacher should pass from father to son forever so that Torah would never be forgotten. This increased and became stronger in Yaakov’s children until they became the nation in the world that knew Hashem.
When Yosef became the Egyptian viceroy, as a token of his appreciation for the clergy who saved his life from the false allegations of Potiphar’s wife, he made a law that Pharaoh’s treasury would financially support all clergy, and he as well exempted them from taxes. This of course included the tribe of Levi who served as the teachers and mentors for the Jewish people. This stipend enabled them to spend their time immersed in Torah study, and since the slavery to Pharaoh was instituted as a tax on the Jewish people, the tribe of Levi was exempt.
When Moshe returned from Mount Sinai with the tablets of Ten Commandments and saw the Jewish people with the golden calf, he called out, “Whoever is for Hashem, come to me!” The Torah tells us that the only ones to respond were the tribe of Levi: “And the whole tribe of Levi gathered to him.” This is the secret to how they were able to elevate themselves above the test of the golden calf and answer Moshe’s call without hesitation. It was their constant involvement with the Torah.
When Rabbi Shimon Schwab זצ”ל (1908 –1995) was 13 years old he had the privilege of spending a Shabbat with the saintly Chofetz Chaim, Rabbi Yisroel Mayer HaCohen Kagan (1838-1933). The Chofetz Chaim said to the young boy Shimon, “I am a Cohen and you are not, why is that?” The boy knew that it was because his father was not a Cohen and the Chofetz Chaim’s father was a Cohen, but he immediately realized that this obvious answer is not what the great rabbi was looking for, so he remained silent. The rabbi repeated the question. “I am a Cohen and you are not, why?” When the boy remained silent the Chofetz Chaim told him. “Because when my great, great grandfather heard Moshe call out, “Whoever is for Hashem, come to me!” he ran! Your great, great grandfather did not, he remained where he was. When you hear that call, don’t be like your great great-grandfather, you run!” (The Cohens are from the tribe of Levi.) Rabbi Schwab related that those words of the Chofetz Chaim motivated him his whole life. He truly became a great leader as Rabbi of Khal Adath Jeshurun in Washington Heights, Manhattan.
Originally, Hashem intended that the service in the Holy Temple be done by the first-born male of every family. He sanctified them to His service the night that He killed the Egyptians’ first born and spared the Jewish first-born. When, however, the first-born sons remained with the golden calf, they became disqualified. And when the tribe of Levi followed Moshe’s call, Hashem chose them to serve instead of the first-born sons.
Because a first-born was originally destined to perform the service in the Tabernacle where only holy people are permitted to enter, he is born with the necessary extra holiness. Upon being disqualified from doing the service, however, the extra holiness is inappropriate for him, and must be removed through redemption. This first redemption took place with the first-born sons who left Egypt.
After counting the Levites, Hashem told Moshe,
(מא) וְלָקַחְתָּ אֶת הַלְוִיִּם לִי אֲנִי יְדֹוָד תַּחַת כָּל בְּכֹר בִּבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל
41) You shall take the Levites for Me, I Hashem, in place of every first-born of the Israelites.
Moshe counted the first-born non-Levite males older than one month, which totaled 22,273. The holiness from 22,000 of the first-born non-Levite males was then transferred, one to one, to the 22,000 Levites. The remaining 273 first-born males each redeemed himself by giving five shekalim, to the Cohens. With this, the holiness was transferred from the first-born to the Levites, and they became the official vanguard of Hashem who were entrusted with task of safeguarding the Tabernacle and its vessels.
This is why there is a mitzvah for a father to redeem his first-born son after 30 days called Pidyon Haben – Redemption of the son. In a special ceremony the father gives five silver dollars to a Cohen. This redeems him and removes the extra holiness. If a first-born son is older than 13 years old and was not redeemed by his father, the obligation falls upon him to redeem himself through a Cohen with five silver dollars.
When Yaakov our forefather designated the tribe of Levi as the teachers of the Jewish nation, he in essence created a Kollel, a group of scholars dedicated to study Torah and teach it to others without the worry of earning a livelihood. This continued through the 210 years that the Jewish people were in Egypt. When the land of Israel was later divided among the twelve tribes, the tribe of Levi received no land and was dependent on the tithes from the fruits and vegetables of the other tribes. This was designed to free him from being preoccupied with earning a living, which would distract him from his primary vocation – studying Torah and teaching it to the Jewish people.
Maimonides clearly expresses this idea (Laws of Shmitta and Yovel 14:12):
(יב) ולמה לא זכה לוי בנחלת ארץ ישראל ובביזתה עם אחיו? מפני שהובדל לעבוד את י”י לשרתו ולהורות דרכיו הישרים ומשפטיו הצדיקים לרבים שנאמר יורו משפטיך ליעקב ותורתך לישראל לפיכך הובדלו מדרכי העולם לא עורכין מלחמה כשאר ישראל ולא נוחלין ולא זוכין לעצמן בכח גופן אלא הם חיל השם שנאמר ברך י”י חילו והוא ברוך הוא זוכה להם שנאמר אני חלקך ונחלתך
12) Why did Levi not merit land in Israel or share in the spoils of war like their brothers? Because they were set aside to serve Hashem, and to teach His straight and righteous laws to the masses, … therefore, they were separated from worldly matters. They do not go to war like the rest of the Jewish nation, they don’t inherit land in Israel or earn anything for themselves. Rather, they are Hashem’s army, and Hashem takes care of their needs.
It would seem that since the destruction of the Holy Temple, the job of the Levites has become extinct. Maimonides, however, in his next paragraph teaches us that such is not the case.
(יג) ולא שבט לוי בלבד אלא כל איש ואיש מכל באי העולם אשר נדבה רוחו אותו והבינו מדעו להבדל לעמוד לפני יי לשרתו ולעובדו לדעה את יי והלך ישר כמו שעשהו האלהים ופרק מעל צוארו עול החשבונות הרבים אשר בקשו בני האדם הרי זה נתקדש קדש קדשים ויהיה י”י חלקו ונחלתו לעולם ולעולמי עולמים ויזכה לו בעה”ז דבר המספיק לו כמו שזכה לכהנים ללוים הרי דוד ע”ה אומר י”י מנת חלקי וכוסי אתה תומיך גורלי בריך רחמנא דסייען
13) Not only the tribe of Levi (will Hashem take care of their needs), but, any person from any walk of life whose spirit has elevated him and given him the good sense to dedicate himself to stand in front of Hashem, to serve Him and to know Him and to walk straight as Hashem made him, and he casts off the yoke of the matters that preoccupy others, this person has been sanctified as the holy of holies, and Hashem will be his portion forever and ever, and Hashem will provide him in this world enough to sustain him as He did for the Cohens and the Levites.
Our city is blessed to have several kollels, with wonderful scholars who are dedicating themselves to the study of Torah and preparing themselves to become the leaders of the next generation. We can be Hashem’s agents by giving as much support as we can to the kollels of our city.