Bamidbar – Don’t Count the Levites

Rabbi Eliezer Barany

Do not on any account enroll the tribe of Levi or take a census of them with the Israelites.  (Sefer Bamidbar 1:49)

Separate Count

This week’s parsha begins a new book, the book of Bamidbar.  The beginning of the book speaks of a census that Hashem commands Moshe to take of the people.  As the above passuk states, the tribe of Levi was not included in the census.  They will be counted, but it will be separate from the census taken for the rest of Bnai Yisrael.  The obvious question is, why would the tribe of Levi utilize a separate census?  To that, Rashi responds with two different interpretations from our sages:

ONLY YOU SHALL NOT NUMBER THE TRIBE OF LEVI — The legion of the King is worthy to be numbered by itself (cf. Midrash Tanchuma, Bamidbar 15). — Another explanation is: The Holy One, blessed be He, foresaw that a decree would be made against all those that had been numbered from twenty years and upwards, that they will die in the wilderness (Numbers 14:29). He therefore said: Let these (the Levites) not be included amongst those now counted, because they are Mine, since they did not sin by worshipping the golden calf (cf. Bamidbar Rabbah 3:7; Bava Batra 121b). (Commentary of Rashi on Sefer Bamidbar 1:49)

As noted, two different interpretations are given.  The first one explains that the tribe of Levi is unique, they are the “legion of the King.”  As such, they merited their own count.  The second answer provided explains that God knew that in the future there would be a decree on the people of this census of Bnai Yisrael that they would die in the wilderness.  So therefore, Hashem wanted to keep the tribe of Levi separate so they would not be included in that decree.

Decree from God

There seem to be some issues with these two interpretations quoted by Rashi.  Hashem apparently wants to save the Levites from the same decree that will be issued on the rest of Bnai Yisrael.  It seems like the decree is totally separate from Hashem, like it has nothing to do with Him.  However, where did this decree from?  It came from Hashem!  Why does it seem that this decree is totally unrelated to God?  Couldn’t He not make a decree on whomever He wants?

Then, it seems that the only way to save the people from this decree was to have a separate census.  So what will the first explanation do with this requirement?  The first explanation needs to take into account the fact that the tribe of Levi did not die out in the desert.  Apparently that explanation was not concerned about the tribe of Levi being included in this decree.  

Different structures

If we take a look at the different countings, that of the Levites and that of the rest of Bnai Yisrael, we see that there are some differences.  The Levites are counted from age thirty and up, while the rest of Bnai Yisrael are counted from the age of twenty and up.  In describing the counting for the rest of Bnai Yisrael, the counting is described as having each person being counted, or each head being counted, whereas by the counting of the Levites, the people are counted by their houses and families.  In fact, their counting was specifically related to their service in the Mishkan, as the Torah states:

All the Levites whom Moses, Aaron, and the chieftains of Israel recorded by the clans of their ancestral houses, from the age of thirty years up to the age of fifty, all who were subject to duties of service and porterage relating to the Tent of Meeting. (Sefer Bamidbar 4:46-47)

Immediately after the command to not incorporate a count (tifkod) of the Levites with the rest of Bnai Yisrael, the Torah says to appoint (hafked) the Levites to work in the Mishkan.  Then, later on when the Levites are counted, their count is in the midst of their roles in the Sanctuary.  In general, what is the terminology of pakod, or counting or appointment?  The Ramban explains:

TIPHKEDU OTHAM. The term p’kidah is an expression meaning remembrance of and attention to a certain matter, as in the phrase, And the Eternal ‘pakad’ (remembered) Sarah as He had said, and this in my opinion is its interpretation in all places, without any exception. (Commentary of Ramban on Sefer Bamidbar 1:3)

The Ramban explains that pakod shows that certain attention is given to the matter.  Therefore, the people were given attention by being counted and the Levites were given attention by being appointed to their positions in the Mishkan.  As such, the Rashbam tells us that the Levites were not included in the other count because the rest of the tribes had a counting for who would serve in the army.  However, the Levites would be counted to serve in the Mishkan.  

So upon their counting, Kehat from the tribe of Levi is counted from age thirty and up and appointed to watch the most sacred objects of the Mishkan, as they cover the objects when they are being moved.  Gershon, from the tribe of Levi, is counted from age thirty and up and their job of carrying the coverings is listed.  Merari from the tribe of Levi is counted from age thirty and up and directed to carry the parts of the structure of the Mishkan.  So it seems their countings are of completely different purposes, and substances.  It seems that the counting of the Levites was supposed to accomplish something else.

Looking at the midrashim

If we look more at the midrash Rashi quoted, the midrash asked why all the Levites merited entering the Land of Israel.  To which it responds that just as they were all righteous in Egypt, so they were righteous in the desert as they gave over of themselves to Hashem during the time of the Golden Calf.  The midrash ponders and tries to figure out how we know that the tribe of Levi entered the Land of Israel, because the passuk says, “Not one of them survived, except Caleb son of Jephunneh and Joshua son of Nun.”  The implication of this passuk is that no one but these two survived, including the Tribe of Levi.  However, we know that Elazar the son of Aharon entered the land.  So therefore the midrash concludes, that since Bnai Yisrael will not be entering the land and the Levites will be entering the land, therefore two separate counts should be done.  As such, the Levites will not be included in the group of Bnai Yisrael who will die out in the desert.  

What is interesting is that the midrash seems to have the opposite of the cause and effect that Rashi had.  Here it seems that the Levites merited a different count because of who they were and what they did, so they should be protected from the decree.  As such, God instructed Moshe to give them a different count.  Meaning that they did not merit destruction, so Moshe instructs him to count them differently.  However, the way Rashi presents it, it seems that the Levites would receive a different count in order to avoid the decree.  

If we look directly at the first Midrash quoted by Rashi, we see that the midrash tells us that the Levites merited to not be destroyed because of their actions; they stood up for God at the incident of the Golden Calf.  As such, they merited their own count.  So how does this seem different from the other midrash?  They seem to both be saying that the Levites were different because they stood up for God and they merited their own count.  So why did Rashi quote both?

Separate or separating?

If we see how Rashi lines the midrashim up and contrasts them, we see that the first midrash is telling us that the Levites were a different people; they are the legion of the King.  However, the second midrash seems to say that the Levites are at least somewhat part of the rest of Bnai Yisrael, so they needed to be separated.  Obviously Levi is one of the sons of Israel, they are Jews as well.  Yet, the tribe of Levi has its own name, its own function; they do not receive a portion in the Land of Israel because God is their portion.  So what is being highlighted here?  

It seems that the first midrash is explaining that the tribe of Levi was a distinct group of people.  As such, they merited their own count.  This count would not protect them from the decree, because they didn’t need protection!  They were not a part of the people who were involved in the sin of the Golden Calf.  

Apparently the second midrash is explaining that while the tribe of Levi were a different group of people, they were still part of the people of Israel; they were still connected.  Therefore, by creating their own count, the Levites became a new, separate entity.  According to the second midrash, the Levites were still being influenced by the other tribes and needed to become their own entity.  So God tells Moshe to separate them.  They should not be brought down by the sins of the others.  Their name should not be associated with such an action.  They needed a push, but they merited intervention for that push to ensure their continued authentic service of God.  

Both answers agree that it was due to the actions of the Levites that they merited being saved from the decree to die out in the desert.  Their count is solely associated with their service in the Mishkan.  They were clearly servants of the Lord.  That is what protected them from the decree.  However, what the count accomplished was either that t revealed that the Levites were a different group or it severed the attachment of the two groups.  Either way, they merited avoidance of the decree because they were a separate group.  Either through their own accord or with the assistance of Hashem.

Sometimes in life we could be totally separated from certain bad influences.  However, we shouldn’t think that just because we are doing certain things appropriately that we need not worry about our influences.  Rashi is highlighting for us that we often need to acknowledge that we need to separate ourselves from some negative influences in order to reach our potential.  Otherwise, our good deeds may get railroaded, and we may turn into a different direction.  Please God we should merit the opportunity to work on ourselves and avoid destructive behavior.