A not quite national census

Bamidbar Torah Reading: This past Shabbat in Israel and this coming Shabbat in the Diaspora.

Rabbi Dr. Dvir Ginsberg, | updated: 09:00

Judaism Rabbi Dr. D. Ginzberg
Rabbi Dr. D. Ginzberg

The first census of the Jewish people takes place at the beginning of the Torah portion of Bamidbar. It would be natural to assume this would be a strong demonstration of unity, the Jewish nation presented as a single constituent. And yet, the tribe of Levi was excluded. Why?

In the first commandment to count the Jewish people, Moshe is told the following (Bamidbar 1:2-3):

“Take the sum of all the congregation of the children of Israel, by families following their fathers' houses; a head count of every male according to the number of their names. From twenty years old and upwards, all who are fit to go out to the army in Israel, you shall count them by their legions you and Aaron.”

The count proceeds, with the heads of each tribe listed and then the subsequent number of each tribe is tallied. Missing from this count is the tribe of Levi. Ramban notes that Moshe deduced based on the initial commandment that the tribe of Levi should not be included. The Torah notes the missing Leviim (ibid 47):

“But the Levites, according to their father's tribe were not numbered among them”

Moshe’s deduction was correct, as immediately after the census, God instructs Moshe (ibid 48-49):

“The Lord spoke to Moses saying: Only the tribe of Levi you shall not number, and you shall not reckon their sum among the children of Israel.”

Why were they to be excluded? While not being explicit, God does indicate that their role as keepers of the Tabernacle meant they were not to be counted at all.

However, we see this was not to the case. The Torah reviews the lineage of Moshe and Aharon, followed by emphasizing how the Leviim replaced the firstborn in the unique role of serving God as priests. We then see a distinct command given to Moshe to count the tribe of Levi (ibid 3:14-15):

“The Lord spoke to Moses in the Sinai desert, saying: Count the children of Levi according to their fathers' house according to their families. Count all males from the age of one month and upward.”

It is unclear why the Leviim were not included in the initial count. Yes, they had a different job than the rest of the nation; did this necessarily require an exclusion from the national census? Where is the unity? Why not express a caveat in the initial count that the Leviim had a different job? Furthermore, why is there initially a command to not include the tribe of Levi in the count, and only later on an additional command to count them? Why not simply begin counting them after the completion of the first count?

Clearly, there is an indication here that the Leviim were to be treated separately from the rest of the nation.

Naturally, this issue is noted by various commentators. Many observe that the census was to include those people who were to be soldiers; as the tribe of Levi would not be fighting in any wars, they were excluded. While this line of reasoning does note the differentiation in occupations, why did it necessitate a completely different counting?

The other possibility offered, as seen in various Midrashim, is a bit more philosophical. Down the road, as we know, the Jewish nation will engage in the heinous sin of the spies. While it appeared as if everyone was guilty of the crime, the Leviim, as is their general way of things, did not participate in the sin. We see the same inaction on the part of the Leviim concerning the sin of the Golden Calf. That said, being that the Jewish nation was to be punished by never entering the Land of Israel, God wanted to ensure the Leviim were not included in the decree. By creating a separate count, the tribe of Levi would never be part of that future punishment.

If we are to take this interpretation literally, it would demonstrate a serious potential miscarriage of justice. How could we consider the Leviim as possibly deserving of the punishment of not entering the Land of Israel if they did not participate in the sin? What idea is being conveyed here?

Having the Leviim occupy a different role is certainly an important distinction. Does it require them to be excluded from the count? The rationale might be relevant to ensuring a proper understanding of the role given to the Leviim. The Torah stresses how the Leviim replaced the firstborn as those who would be working in the Tabernacle. Since there was a transfer of roles, it would be reasonable to assume that the job of the Leviim was more of an assignment rather than something intrinsic to their identity. In other words, while the Leviim today were tasked with Tabernacle duty, circumstances might change and other tribes might be called upon to take on the role.

Therefore, it was critical that the Jewish people understand that the role of Leviim was not to be viewed as a profession; rather, the very identity of each Levite was essentially tied to their subsequent roles. Had they been included in the original census, there might have been an assumption by the other tribes that there could still have been a re-assignment. God emphasizes this point by first excluding them from the initial count, demonstrating the unique status of this tribe.

The other approach offered focuses on the exclusion of the Leviim from the future punishment handed to the Jewish nation. Of course, the idea of the Leviim somehow being culpable for a sin they had no involvement with is absurd. It is possible there is a deeper message here, related to the above point.

Historically, the Leviim were always above the fray, so to speak. They were the role models, the section of the Jewish nation never tarnished by sin (up until the rebellion of Korach). They were tasked with both the special commandments involved with the Tabernacle along with teaching the Jewish nation. What came with this position relative to the rest of the nation was a different standard of how they were to be judged. Even when it came to the sin of the spies, there might have been a degree of culpability on the part of the Leviim by not raising the Jewish people to a higher plan through their role. In a sense,

God “expected” more from this sub-group of the Jewish nation. The point here is not simply that they were excluded from the punishment. The Leviim were always to be judged on a separate plane, a different type of relationship with the Divine. Along with this special relationship was the expectation that if they did not fulfill their responsibilities, they would not be judged in the same way as the rest of the Jewish nation.

Indeed, unity is a noble objective, and the Jewish people should always strive to come together in our worship of God. However, this desire must be balanced against the understanding of the special status afforded the Leviim. Through a complete exclusion from the census of the Jewish nation, God helped emphasize the proper way to see the relationship of the Leviim to the rest of the people.