Parshat Bamidbar 5772: 600,000 Jewish Neshamot in Bamidbar — But What About the Levi’im?

by Moshe Burt

Our Parsha Bamidbar deals with the numbers crunching of the census taken “on the first of the second month, in the second year after their exodus from… Mitzriyim.” (Sefer Bamidbar, Perek 1, posuk 1)

This author addressed the transference of the Kehuna (priesthood) from the first-borns to the Kohanim in vorts on Parshat Ki Tisa in successive years.

But the Kehuna was not all that was taken from the first-born after the Eigel Zahav — the golden calf. The census of our parsha Bamidbar reveals that Hashem kavei’yokel (as He is) transferred, replaced, or as the word is used in the parsha — “redeemed”, the Kedusha of the first-borns through the Levi’im. Our parsha states (Artscroll Chumash rendering of Sefer Bamidbar, Perek 3, posukim 11-12):

Hashem spoke to Moshe saying, “Behold! I have taken the Levites from among the B’nai Yisrael, in place of every first-born…”

Sefer Bamidbar, Perek 1, posukim 47 through 50 state:

The Levi’im according to the tribe of their fathers were not counted among them [the total number of the B’nai Yisrael]. Hashem spoke to Moshe saying, “…You shall not count the tribe of Levi, and you shall not take a census of them among the B’nai Yisrael. You shall appoint the Levi’im over the Mishkan [Tabernacle], over all its utensils and everything which belongs to it…”

R’ Shimshon Rafael Hirsch, z’l provides commentary on the above posukim in the new Hirsch Chumash (published by Feldheim in 2005 and translated to English by Daniel Haberman):

There was one tribe that remained faithful to Hashem and his Torah, defending the inviolability of Torah against the rest of the nation…. This tribe, the tribe of Levi is now appointed “guardian” of the Torah, and for this purpose is to remain apart from the rest of the nation. Levi does not belong to the community, but solely to the Testimony [presumably meaning Torah] which is the ruling soul of the community.

Just as they serve and represent the Torah in their personal lives, so are they to serve and represent the sanctity of the Torah. The service consists of bearing the Sanctuary and its furnishings when the nation is on the march, and in reassembling the Sanctuary when the nation sets up camp…. camping around the Mishkan [Sanctuary] and guarding it.

….The whole purpose of the separation of the Mishkan and setting apart of its Servants was to constantly remind Israel of this character of Service of the Sanctuary.

Further on in the parsha, we learn that the count of B’nai Yisrael (all but the Levi’im) from twenty years and up numbered some 603,550 (Sefer Bamidbar, Perek 1, posuk 46, Perek 2, posuk 32) about whom commentators seem to always round-down in referring the “600,000 neshamot in the Bamidbar (the desert). The Levi’im, who were not counted among the B’nai Yisrael “as Hashem had commanded Moshe” (Sefer Bamidbar, Perek 2, posuk 33), but were counted separately and from the age of one month numbered 22,000 (Sefer Bamidbar, Perek 3, posuk 39) in the census. Rashi notes (on Perek 3, posuk 39) that the counts of the families of Kohath, Gershon and Merari added up to 22,300 but that:

“Three hundred of the Levites were themselves first-born, so that they themselves required redemption. By dedicating themselves to the service of Hashem, they redeemed their own persons, but could not redeem others as well.” (Artscroll Chumash rendering of Rashi on Perek 3, posuk 39)

Hashem then instructed Moshe to make a count of “…every first-born child of the B’nai Yisrael from one month of age and up…” (Sefer Bamidbar, Perek 3, posuk 40). The count of the first-born of the B’nai Yisrael totalled 22,273 (Sefer Bamidbar, Perek 3, posuk 43).

The transference of the Kedusha of the first-borns onto the Levi’im took place 22,000 onto 22,000 by lots drawn by the first-borns, with the 273 remaining first-borns paying, by Divine command, 5 shekalim each to Aaron and his sons (Perek 3, posuk 48) — ostensibly going for use regarding the Mishkan. Perek 3, posuk 45 states:

“…And the Levites shall be Mine, I am Hashem.”

The Artscroll Chumash cites the Ohr HaChaim on Perek 3, posuk 45 as stating:

“I am Hashem, just as I am eternal, so the status of the Levites is eternal.”

The census numbers, and Hashem’s redemption of the first-borns through the Levi’im prompt several questions worth pondering over this Shabbos, which is followed on its heels immediately afterwards by Shavu’ot:

  • 1) Commentators seem to always make mention of the “600,000 neshamot in the Bamidbar” when referring to the B’nai Yisrael. But in doing so, one’s perception might be: But aren’t the Levi’im also Jews and part of B’nai Yisrael?
  • 2) Commentators often make the equation made between the “600,000 neshamot” and the number of letters which make up the Torah. But isn’t Torah actually comprised of 200,000 plus letters?
  • 3) If we learn that the entire generation of the B’nai Yisrael above 20 years old were destined to die in the Bamidbar, what about the Levi’im who were counted separately, and on a different basis (from one month, rather than from twenty years old) than were the rest of B’nai Yisrael?
  • 4) Since the Levi’im also accepted the negative report of the Miraglim: the spies, why didn’t their generation die in the Bamidbar, as did the generation of the B’nai Yisrael?
  • 5) Seeing that the first-borns were replaced, redeemed by the Levi’im, what became the status of the first-borns?

One could gain the perception that the Levi’im were totally separate and distinct and a different nation from the rest of the B’nai Yisrael, and in effect, they were separate and distinct within the Jewish nation, as R’ Hirsch explains above, and as indicated Ohr HaChaim on Perek 3, posuk 45.

Regarding equating the census of the “600,000 neshamot” with the letters of Torah, an anonymous Tzaddik in RBS indicates that commentators such as Rabbi Moshe Wolfson, Mashgiach Ruchani of Mesivta Torah Vodaath and Rav of Beis Medrash Emunas Yisrael in Brooklyn, and who is a revered rabbinic figure in our time, seem to tell us that although Torah is comprised of 200,000 plus letters, many of those letters are made from two or more letters. One could also understand that the spelling of each of the letters could be made up of two or more letters, i.e. Alef = Alef, Lamed and final Fay, or Bet = Bet, Tuf.

Chassidic commentators indicate that the 22,000 Levi’im constitute the white spaces in Torah which hold the letters in place for eternity, just as the the Levi’im, in the words of R’ Hirsch above, are the “ruling soul of the community”, teaching Torah to the B’nai Yisrael and acting to prevent them from straying for all time. Therefore, we learn that the generation of Levi’im in Bamidbar survived to enter Eretz Yisrael while the 600,000 of tht generation perished over the forty years.

R’ Zelig Pliskin, in his sefer “Growth Through Torah” cites the Sifsai Chachomim on our Parsha (page 308) regarding the Levi’im and the Miraglim:

…The Levites also accepted the negative report of the spies. But the decree of dying in the wilderness was because of the double transgressions of the Golden Calf and the spies. Since the Levites were not guilty in the incident of the Golden Calf, they were not included in the decree.

With the Kedusha of the first-borns transferred to the Levi’im by Divine Command, those first-borns between the ages of twenty and sixty years retained their count within the “600,000 neshamot” of B’nai Yisrael. Those first-borns less than twenty years or over 60 years reverted to a status of not having been counted in the census.

And so the Levi’im, with the Kehuna, served as Divine paradigms for the B’nai Yisrael to emulate in their thoughts, speech and actions in keeping with the spirit of the Matan Torah experience as Shabbos Parsha Bamidbar ends and our annual Shavu’ot Matan Torah experience begins this year immediately thereafter.

The Sefer Shem Mishmuel (page 302) cites Rabbi Berachyah in Shemos Rabbah Perek 28, posuk 1 in a Shavu’ot vort:

“The Tablets were six tefachim (handbreadths) long — in some sense, Hashem grasped two tefachim, Moshe grasped 2 tefachim and 2 tefachim bridged the gap between them.”

Shem Mishmuel then explains (pages 302 – 304):

We can sub-divide all mitzvot, and indeed, all human endeavors into three spheres: thought, speech and action. There are some Mitzvot which require a Jew to think in a particular way. For example, the first of the Ten Commandments demands belief in Hashem.

Other Mitzvot are dependent on speech. For example, one must verbally recall Shabbos…. not lie to at Beis Din or speak badly of another. Finally, there are many Mitzvot which utilize the Jew’s power of action. There are requirements to put on tefillin, shake the lulav, eat matzah, etc.

…Each of these three divisions reflect different interactions between man and Hashem.

Action… is entirely in an individual’s domain. He is not forced to do anything that he doesn’t want to do.

The actions of the Jew determine everything, even the ultimate success or failure of the peoples of the world. This idea is illustrated by Chazal:

“After Yisrael did that wicked act [the sin of the golden calf], Hashem wanted to grab the tablets from Moshe. However Moshe prevailed and snatched them back.”

To conclude, the actions of a Jew can have enormous consequences for good or for bad. Literally, everything depends upon it. And it could be that when the Jews received the Torah at Sinai they had all this in mind when they proclaimed: “All that Hashem has said, we will do and hear.”

May we, the B’nai Yisrael be zocha that our brethren — the refugee families from Gush Katif be permanently settled and be made totally whole — restituted for all that was stolen from them at leftist-agendized, supreme court legalized gunpoint, that our dear brother Jonathan Pollard and the other MIAs be liberated alive returned to us in ways befitting Al Kiddush Hashem. May we have the courage, backbone and moral stength of conviction to prevent both the eviction of Jews from their homes in all or any part of Eretz Yisrael and the handing of Jewish land over to enemies sworn to Israel’s and Judaism’s destruction and eradication. May we fulfill Hashem’s blueprint of B’nai Yisrael as a Unique people — an Am Segula, not to be reckoned with as with “the nations” and may we be zocha to see the Moshiach, the Ge’ula Shlaima — the Ultimate Redemption bim hay v’yameinu — speedily, in our time”, as Dov Shurin sings; “Ki Karov Yom Hashem V’Kol HaGoyim” — Achshav, Chik Chuk, Miyad, Etmol!!!

Good Shabbos and Chag Same’ach (Shavu’ot)!

Moshe Burt, an Oleh, is a commentator on news and events in Israel and Founder and Director of The Sefer Torah Recycling Network. He lives in Ramat Beit Shemesh.