Parashat Bamidbar: “Take the Levites”

Why does the Torah go to such lengths to keep the Levites completely separate from the rest of the Israelites? Why did it order a separate census of the Levites?

Rabbi Yoni Rosensweig, Faculty of the Maria and Joel Finkle Overseas Program at Midreshet Lindenbaum

Parashat Bamidbar contains technical lists of the numbers of Israelites, and each census was done a bit differently. In the first chapter, we find the head counts of the Israelites, tribe by tribe, with the exception of the Levites who, as the Torah emphasizes, were not counted in the general census of the Israelites. The second chapter presents the census “by standards”. Here, the Israelites were grouped and arranged in a particular way, which conformed with how they camped and travelled. Here, too, the text underscores the Levites’ unique position, and the fact that they are not counted among the Israelites.

One question comes to mind: Why does the Torah go to such lengths to keep the Levites completely separate from the rest of the Israelites? Why did Hashem refuse to count the Levites along with the rest of the Israelites, only to later command that they be counted separately? Biblical commentators have tried to explain the significance of the different censuses and their details. We would also like to propose a way to appreciate the significance of the amount of text the Torah uses in this regard. Studying these fine details can reveal the secret buried within the text.

Let’s begin by recapping the head counts of all of the tribes:
Reuben – 46500, Simeon – 59300, Gad – 45650, Judah – 74600, Issachar – 54400,
Zebulon – 57400, Efraim – 40500, Menashe – 32200, Benjamin – 35400, Dan – 62700,
Asher – 41500, and Naftali – 53400.

With regard to the standards, the tribes were grouped into four camps, as follows:

The camp of Judah – Judah, Issachar and Zebulon (74600+54400+57400= 186400).
This group camped in the east, and it formed the vanguard for the rest of the Israelites when they travelled.                                                                                 

The camp of Reuben: Reuben, Simeon and Gad (46500 + 59300 + 45650 = 151450).

This group camped in the south, and it formed the right flank of the Israelite camp
(when viewed from the rear).

The camp of Efraim: Efraim, Menashe and Benjamin (40500+32200+35400= 108100).
This group camped in the west, and it formed the rearguard when the Israelites travelled.
The camp of Dan: Dan, Asher and Naftali (62700 + 41500 + 53400 = 157600).

This group camped in the north, and it formed the left flank of the Israelite camp
(when viewed from the rear).

If we revisit this camping formation, we’ll realize that Hashem created an order reminiscent of a grand military parade, a formation that made sense military, as well: the numerically superior group would form the vanguard, groups with similar numbers made up the two flanks, and finally, the weakest of the four groups would make up the rearguard.  Furthermore, since all of these camps were supposed to be under the orders of the commander of the camp, the groups were arranged in a way that allowed each of the tribes making up those groups to get along while accepting the authority of their superiors. Judah, Issachar and Zebulon were all descended from Leah, and it goes without saying that they accepted Judah’s authority. Reuben, Simeon and Gad were also Leah’s sons, or, in the case of Gad, the son of Leah’s maidservant, so they would certainly have accepted Reuben’s authority. Efraim, Menashe and Benjamin are all descended from Rachel, Efraim was clearly given preference over Menashe in leadership, and finally, the Dan camp included Asher and Naftali – all descended from maidservants.

The Levites are mentioned twice in this formation. The first mention is in chapter 1, when the Torah sets them apart, stating that all of the tribes camped beside their standards, but the Levites set up camp outside the Tabernacle. The are kept separate and distinct from the other tribes and they maintain a separate identity. At this point, the Torah hasn’t given us any further details, and it proceeds to describe the “census of the standards”.

The following important description occurs in the middle of the explanation of the standard formation, in verse 17: “Then, midway between the divisions, the Tent of Meeting, the division of the Levites, shall move. As they camp, so they shall march, each in position, by their standards.” The Tribe of Levi camped among the people – right in the middle. This contrasts with the text in the previous chapter: on the one hand, the Torah emphasizes the Levite’s detachment from the rest of the Israelites, while on the other hand, if stresses that the Levites are an inseparable and key component of the entire nation. The nation is gathered around the Levites. The Levites are at the center of the Jewish people, since they camp by the Mishkan.

Unlike the other tribes, the tribe of Levi was split into family groups. Even the expression “by the clans of its ancestral houses”, often used in reference to the tribal censuses, is reversed in the case of the Levites; the Torah states that the Levites must be counted “by their ancestral house and by their clans.”

One way to explain this is that the Levites were divided into clans because the Holy One, Blessed Be He divided them based on their roles, not based on their tribal affiliation, and in essence, the tribe of Levi no longer maintained an independent identity, as it now became the staff of the servants of Hashem. This is the tribe of those who served Hashem, and as such, it is connected to the entire Jewish people.

Today, those who serve the nation spiritually are our rabbis and educators. For them, too, tribalism must be done away with. Educators, teachers and rabbis are all dedicated to serving the entire Jewish people, regardless of whether they are secular, religious, ultra-orthodox or otherwise. They must take charge of ignoring the small portion of Israeli society in which they were raised, and dedicate themselves to the holy work of creating connections with the entire Jewish people.


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