In this week’s Parsha, we find ourselves joining Am Yisrael in the midbar as they begin to make their final preparations to enter Eretz Yisrael. Already delayed by Chet HaEgel and its aftermath, and with the Mishkan firmly established in their midst, Bnei Yisrael are ready once again to move forward. With the nightmarish chain of events beginning with the “Mitoninim” and culminating with Chet HaMeraglim still unimagined, only the technical details of how to enter into Eretz Yisrael need to be ironed out prior to entering Eretz Yisrael. The first step in this process is taking a census of Am Yisrael in order to organize them into proper regiments to march into the land.
The very organization of these regiments is indicative of the hierarchal nature which will define Am Yisrael in the future. We are familiar with the three “machanot” which make up the encampment of Am Yisrael – the Miskan, Machane Leviya and Machane Yisrael. We begin with the heart of the Machane, the Mishkan. Surrounding the Mishkan on one side are the tents of Moshe, Aharon and Aharon’s surviving sons, Elazar and Itamar. On the other three sides we find the respective encampments of the three branches of the Shevet Levi, mishpachot Gershon, Kehat and Merari. In the third, most outer rectangle we find the rest of Am Yisrael in their assigned places, three shevatim on any given side, each camped around the standard of their assigned group. Each group was identified by the lead shevet, Yehuda, Reuven, Ephraim and Dan respectively.
Ralbag (1:53) points out that the design of the encampment reflects the relative importance of each of the camp’s individual components. The Mishkan in the center is most important. The Shevet surrounding the Mishkan, Shevet Levi, is the most important of all the shevatim and is therefore closest to the center and charged with caring for the Mishkan. Where a given family camps around the Mishkan reflects its importance within the Shevet, as does its role in caring for and transporting the Mishkan. Similarly, the placement of each individual Shevet in the outer groupings reflects their relative importance vis-à-vis one another. Ramban (2:3) adopts a similar approach, though he is not as thoroughly committed to each hierarchal element as is Ralbag.
It is interesting to note that much of this hierarchal idea is in fact codified in Halacha (Rambam Hilchot Bait HaMikdash, perek 9 and Hilchot Klei Hamikdash, perek 3). If anyone other than a Kohen does the Avoda, he is liable for death. If anyone (even a Kohen) does the tasks of a Levi he too is liable (though there is disagreement regarding the actual punishment). Even within the specific tasks assigned to a Levi, one Levi is forbidden, on pain of death, to perform the task assigned to a different branch of the family. Finally, were a non-Levi to take upon himself the task of dismantling and transporting the Mishkan, he too would be liable for death. Reflecting the disagreement in the Gemara between R. Yishmael and R. Akiva (Sanhedrin 84), Rashi and Ralbag see this act as carrying the penalty of Mita B’yidei Shamayim while Ibn Ezra declares that the penalty is meted out by Beit Din.
If we accept the idea that this hierarchy was already understood prior to the actual census of Am Yisrael, it can help us understand a puzzling element in the order of the passukim toward the end of the first perek. After recounting the census, (passukim 20-46) the Torah states (47) that the Leviim were not counted with the rest of Bnei Yisrael. One can reasonably ask, however, why that should be the case. While it is true that Hashem specifically commands Moshe to count the Leviim separately, that command can only be found in the following passukim (48-49). How, without a prior command from Hashem, did Moshe know not to count them?
Three different approaches to answer this question emerge from the Rishonim. One approach, suggested by Ibn Ezra (1:49), simply connects the three passukim. The command from Hashem preceded the counting and should be understood as explaining why Moshe had not counted the Leviim in the first place. While it is certainly not unreasonable to suggest that Hashem had thus commanded Moshe earlier and the Torah is only sharing that information with us now, one might argue that this approach still seems unsatisfactory. After all, passuk 47, which declares that Moshe did not count the Leviim is the final passuk in its parsha, and the command not to count them begins a new parsha. Would it not be more reasonable that the command appear in the same parsha as the description of its fulfillment? Ibn Ezra would answer no. Since the second parsha describes the unique role that the Leviim play in protecting the Mishkan it is logical that the command and its rationale be presented together in a discrete parsha.
Perhaps because they were troubled by our question on Ibn Ezra, Ramban and later Seforno suggest an answer which is in fact focused on Hashem’s initial command to Moshe Rabbenu. When commanded to conduct the census, Moshe is told (1:4) that he should invite the leader of each Shevet to be with him when the count is conducted. The Torah then goes on to identify those individuals. However, no leader is named for Shevet Levi. As a result, Moshe understands that Levi should not be counted at this time. He then proceeds to conduct the commanded census for the other shevatim and when he completes that task he waits for further instructions on how to proceed. Hence, in stating that the Leviim were not counting, the Torah is merely telling us that Moshe did as much of the mitzvah as he could and that he then stopped, awaiting further instructions. Sure enough, in the subsequent passukim Hashem instructs Moshe on how to proceed in counting Shevet Levi. At this time Moshe is also told why they were counted separately, because they were charged with caring for the Mishkan.
The third approach, suggested by Rashi and Rashbam, brings us back to our original discussion of the understood hierarchy within Am Yisrael. Rashi (1:49) states that it is appropriate that the King’s guard should be counted separately. Similarly, Rashbam (1:47) notes that the fact that they would be guarding the Mishkan explains why they weren’t counted with the rest of the shevatim. Of course, both Rashi and Rashbam beg the question. How was Moshe to know that Shevet Levi was different without having been informed of this fact? Why should Moshe have related to them as “the king’s guard”?
If we accept our original supposition, that Levi’s role as guardian of the Mishkan was already an acknowledged fact then the answer posited by Rashi and Rashbam is so obvious that it almost needs not be mentioned. But what was the basis of this supposition?
We know that Shevet Levi’s devotion to Hashem was demonstrated at the time of Chet HaEgel, when they refused to join with the rest of Bnei Yisrael in searching for replacement leadership and then answered Moshe’s call to slaughter those who worshipped Avoda Zara. The absolute fealty that Shevet Levi demonstrated resulted in their being chosen to serve in the Mishkan in place of the Bechorim. It is no surprise then that as the groupings of Am Yisrael are being announced that this status would now be formalized. In fact, the very next step that Moshe is commanded is to formalize the status of the Leviim as the successors in this role to the Bechorim. By having stood firm in their dedication to Hashem, Shevet Levi now find themselves as guardians of the Mishkan for all future generations.