The fourth book of the Torah has two names. In Hebrew it is Bamidbar — In the Desert.
Historically, of course, that is where it takes place. Its English name is Numbers, and that
name describes its subject matter, particularly its opening chapters. Here in Chapter 1
Moses is given the task of taking a census with the aid of the elders of each tribe — except
for the tribe of Levi. We learn the total number of men of military age in each tribe, and the
total comes to exactly 603,550 males over 20 years of age. Not counted in this census were
all the women and children, bringing the approximate total of Jews who left Egypt to at least
2 million. Rabbi Hertz remarks on the size of this travelling population and the fact that
they could not expect to survive in the Sinai desert, which even in his day supported only
about 10,000. No wonder they lived on manna for 40 years.
But here we still did not count the members of the tribe of Levi. Only in Chapter 3 do we read about them. Their census was taken by families, each Levitic clan with its special duties — carrying the holy ark, the table, the Menorah, the altar, the curtains and tent-poles that formed the Tabernacle, in fact all the portable articles that activated ancient worship wherever the people camped. This responsibility was limited to Levi, not to any other tribe. Levite males aged one month and up are counted. They will do their service in the Tabernacle, not in the army. Why? What is so special about Levi? Certainly their original ancestor was not distinguished as holy. Jacobs dying message to his sons describes Simon and Levi as “brothers sharing weapons of violence” (Gen. 49:5). True, Moses and Aaron came from the tribe of Levi, but later in this same book of Numbers we read of a Levite named Korach who led a rebellion against Moses. The tribe was not above political wrangling. So how does this tribe rate a permanent military deferment, and special religious status?
This special status survived through the entire Biblical and Talmudic periods of our history, and vestiges of it remain with us today. Traditionally the second aliyah laTorah — the second of the honors to be called to the Torah reading in the synagogue — belongs to a Levi. When a baby boy is a first-born, if either parent is a Levi the Pidyon haBen — redemption ceremony — is not required. That ceremony, of course, takes place at the age of one month, the same age at which Levite males were counted in the desert.
Perhaps we can find the reason for this special Levitic status in two of the dramatic events described in the Torah. One is the famous 10th plague in Egypt, the death of the firstborn. Since the firstborn sons of the Israelites were spared, they acquired the status of family priesthood.
The other event is the crisis of the Golden Calf, recounted in the Book of Exodus. When Moses comes down from receiving the Commandments on Mount Sinai and finds the people dancing around the idol, he smashes the tablets of the Law, and in his fury he calls out “Who is for G-d, come to me!” And who answers the call? The sons of Levi. (Ex. 32:26)
Now in Numbers we read that Moses must take a special count of all the firstborn sons of the other 11 tribes, and substitute the Levites for them. As the Kli Yokor commentary points out, this is the significance of the statement here where G-d is quoted as saying “All the first born belong to Me.” Instead of a family priesthood, however, there will be a communal hereditary priesthood. So every little Levite takes the place of a little Israelite. As it happens, the number of firstborn Israelites comes to 22,273. The total of Levite males is an even 22,000. So the additional 273 have to be redeemed for 5 silver coins each — exactly the amount of the Pidyon haBen to this day. In fact, now we can buy Pidyon haBen coins specially manufactured for the ceremony.
If you are a family of Israelites — no Cohen or Levi involved — and you are expecting a male first child, you can look forward to a ceremony that goes back more than 3,000 years.
Our history lives with us in many ways.