#263: Don't Count the Levites!
Rashi and Alshikh on Parashat Bemidbar, Bemidbar/Numbers 1:49
Seven Green Berets, one from each of the US Army’s seven special forces, attend the wreath laying ceremony at the grave of President John F. Kennedy, Jr. Public domain image.
Gimme Some Torah #263
אַ֣ךְ אֶת־מַטֵּ֤ה לֵוִי֙ לֹ֣א תִפְקֹ֔ד וְאֶת־רֹאשָׁ֖ם לֹ֣א תִשָּׂ֑א בְּת֖וֹךְ בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃
Do not on any account enroll the tribe of Levi or take a census of them with the Israelites.
God commands Moses and Aaron to conduct a tribe-by-tribe, military census of the nation; the total is 603,550 men of fighting age. There is one major exception to the census: God orders that the Levites, the priestly tribe, should not be counted or enrolled under any circumstance.
Why were the Levites not counted with everyone else? Based on a midrash, Rashi (bio) explains the rule as a matter of royal privilege:
The legion of the King is worthy to be numbered by itself.
The Levites, according to Rashi, are not just a tribe, nor are they first among equals. Instead, we should think of the Levites as the Holy One’s special forces. American military regiments like the Green Berets and IDF units like Sayeret Matkal and the Golani are so important that they are both part of their armed forces and separate from it.
So it was with the Levites. They were part of the nation in the technical sense of the word, but simultaneously wholly separate from it. But what made the Levites so different that they could not be counted among the people? Alshikh (bio) says that the issue was not just the holiness of the Levites but the kind of holiness they possessed:
The holiness of Israel is not equal to the holiness of the Levites, and the the proof is “You shall put the Levites in charge of the Tabernacle of the Pact, all its furnishings, and everything that pertains to it. . .” (Num. 1:50). Indeed, they carry the utensils of the Holy One’s residence and they serve the Eternal.
All of Israel is holy—the Torah in Ex. 19:6 tells us to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation, a מַמְלֶכֶת כֹּהֲנִים וְגוֹי קָדוֹשׁ (mamlekhet kohanim v’goy kadosh). But Alshikh’s point is that there are different flavors of holiness, and they are not necessarily compatible with each other, just as Mac OS apps won’t run on a Windows PC.
The lesson for our lives is that today, with no Temple in Jerusalem, all Jews should see themselves as God’s special forces. All human beings are holy because we are all created in the Divine Image. But the holiness of the Jew is not compatible with the rest of the world, which is why we must eschew assimilation. We are both part of humanity and wholly separate from it, as Bilaam said in his blessing of the nation (Num. 23:9-10):
As I see them from the mountain tops,
Gaze on them from the heights,
There is a people that dwells apart,
Not reckoned among the nations,
Who can count the dust of Jacob,
Number the dust-cloud of Israel?
May I die the death of the upright,
May my fate be like theirs!
What should God’s special forces do?
Read the rest of Rashi’s interpretation. What other reason does he give for the prohibition against counting the Levites?
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Rabbi Eli Garfinkel is the spiritual leader of Temple Beth El in Somerset, New Jersey. He is the author of The JPS Jewish Heritage Torah Commentary.