Rabbi Yehoshua Dovid Schwartz
JLIC Rabbi at Boston University
Love, War, and the Other
“All that were numbered of the Levites, whom Moses and Aaron numbered at the commandment of the LORD, by their families, all the males from a month old and upward, were twenty and two thousand” (Bemidbar 3:39)
As we begin this new book, we are immediately taken over by the counting of the entire Jewish people. Following the count of the 603,550 war-aged men, Moses and Aaron are then told to count the Leviim, a task which ought to be fairly simple, as they have fewer numbers than any other tribe (see commentators for explanations as to why). They count 22,000 (3:39) among all of those males one month and up. The issue is that when we count the three families of Gershon [verse 3:22 totaling 7,500], Kehat [3:28 totaling 6,200], and, Merari [3:34 totaling 8,600], the total is 22,300, leaving a discrepancy of 300.
Rashi answers that the difference of 300 was because those Leviim were also firstborn, and it would be redundant to count them again. However, this doesn’t answer why the Torah didn’t coordinate the numbers between the families and the total by removing the firstborns from each of the family numbers.
There are three bold questions here: What is the Torah teaching us with this discrepancy? Why is it that the difference occurs in calculating the tribe of Levi? Why do we including everyone from one month and older instead of those between twenty and sixty?
To begin answer, we need to go back to the beginning of the parsha, in order to understand why we are counting. At the very beginning of the parsha we are told to count the whole Jewish people and with that, the commentators who give three main reasons as to why the Jews are being counted.
1. Because of Hashem’s love for us
2. Because these are those who go out to war
3. To allow for the resting of God’s presence (Hashra’at Hashechina)
The first reason is simple enough and applies to all of the Jews, and would seem to be a self-evident idea. God loves us, and when you love something, you count it or look over it constantly, and in this case distinguishing the beauty of quantity. For this reason everyone ought to be included in the count, but it’s for the aforementioned technicality that the firstborn Leviim would be left out.
The second reason is practical and understandable, and again because ostensibly the Leviim don’t go to war, it makes sense why they would need their own count. And then again, technically the firstborn will be left out.
However, the third reason stands out a bit. The Kli Yakar says that reason that the verse went out of its way to say 22,000 despite the discrepancy, was to quantify the minimum number needed for the hashra’at Hashechina. This is an interesting idea, but we know from other places (Pirkei Avot 3:2) that God’s presence rests even on a single person learning Torah, so why suddenly do we need such an inflated number to bring this energy?
Perhaps the answer is that the Presence we’re speaking of here is of a qualitatively different nature, not the level of an individual, but to bring this Presence on a communal level, and how many are needed to manifest this energy. It also makes sense why the Torah chose the Leviim to bring this message out, as they are at the spiritual core of the Jewish people.
But this still doesn’t explain why we include all age ranges of Leviim in this count. Perhaps the message is not one of simply bringing the shechinah, but rather actualizing the growing potential of a community. Biologically we’re told that we need 10,000 people to make a diverse genetic base, and correspondingly, a diverse spiritual base of 22,000 is needed to progenate communal holiness, and maintain a continued level of growth.
Really all three of the original reasons now converge. Of course, Hashem loves every individual, but the love here is one of community and the diversity therein. The counting for war is the communal hand of defense or offense, which also needs this diversity of holiness to ensure it’s success. And lastly, the apex of our communal potential as Jews to actualize Godliness into this world. The idiom ‘numbers don’t lie’ is just as much a Torah principle as a worldly one, and we need to understand that a unified Jewish people are a power that can change the spiritual reality of the world, but that means we need a minimum. Let’s all try to do our part to unify ourselves during this auspicious time.