The portion of Bamidbar is the first in the book of Numbers, and opens it with a census. It has been a year since the people left Egypt, and the Tabernacle is entering its operational stage. The camp needs to be arranged around it.
God orders a census of the people be taken, and commands that they encamp in a specific arrangement. The Levites are appointed to a special role within the Israelite camp, and are likewise counted separately. The portion ends with the first of the Levite families, Kehat, being given their responsibilities towards the Tabernacle.
A Census of the People
Bamidbar picks up on the first day of the second month of the second year since the Children of Israel left Egypt. God now instructs Moses to take Aaron and a leader from each tribe and count the people. The census is to account for every male of military age, according to their households. Since God commanded earlier (back in the book of Exodus) never to count the people directly, the tribal leaders drew up lists of names and the names of those over twenty years of age were counted, though medieval commentator Rashi suggests the leaders again collected half-shekels from each qualifying individual and counted those.
The results, in the order they appear in the text, are as follows:
Reuben — 46,500
Simeon — 59,300
Gad — 55,650
Judah — 74,600
Issachar — 54,400
Zebulun — 57,400
Ephraim — 40,500
Manasseh — 32,200
Benjamin — 35,400
Dan — 62,700
Asher — 41,500
Naphtali — 53,400
Grand total: 603,550 men of military age.
The Levites were not included in the census, as God has other plans for them.
This is the first of several censuses which will be taken in the book of Numbers. In fact, the Israel Bible points out, these are what give the book its English name (its Hebrew name, like that of the portion — Bamidbar — means “in the desert”, also an apt description). While the census is taken ostensibly for war, as the Israelites should be entering the Promised Land imminently, the Sages point out that the numerous times God counts the people is also an indication of His love for them. Each individual is so precious to God that He takes the time to count them over and over.
Points to Ponder
Seven months earlier, in Exodus 38:26, the Children of Israel number an identical 603,550. Yet we know the Levites were included in the first count and not in the second, and surely people died or turned twenty in the interim! How might you explain the static number? What do you think is the significance of this census result?
Formation of the Israelite Camp
The Torah now outlines the arrangement of the Israelite camp. The Tabernacle has become the central focus of the community, so it is not surprising to hear the camp must be erected around it.
God tells Moses not to count the Levites in the census with the rest of the people, because they have a unique role to play. They are to take responsibility for the Tabernacle and its utensils, assembling and disassembling the components as needed during the Israelites’ travels. It therefore makes sense that God commands them to encamp directly around the Tabernacle.
The rest of the tribes are arranged in groups of three around the Levites, one group for each point of the compass. Judah, along with Issachar and Zebulun, take the eastern camp; Reuben, along with Simeon and Gad, are in the south; Ephraim, along with Manasseh and Benjamin, encamp in the west; and Dan, with Asher and Naphtali, round out the north. Thus, the eastern camp held 186,400, the southern camp numbered 151,450, the western camp contained 180,100 and the northern camp consisted of 157,600 members.
The Israel Bible explains that as forebear of the Davidic dynasty, the tribe of Judah was given the place of honor at the front of the Israelite camp, in the direction of the rising sun. Whenever the people traveled, it was Judah who led the way.
Each mini-camp had its own banner with a unique insignia. Similarly, the modern state of Israel has its own flag with imagery that evokes its uniqueness. The Israel Bible relates the story behind the flag of Israel, which dates back to the First Zionist Congress in 1897. According to David Wolffsohn, a prominent member of the early Zionist movement, “…an idea struck me. We have a flag — and it is blue and white. The tallit (prayer shawl) with which we wrap ourselves when we pray: that is our symbol. Let us take the tallit from its bag and unroll it before the eyes of Israel and the eyes of all nations. So I ordered a blue and white flag with the Shield of David painted upon it. That is how the national flag, that flew over Congress Hall, came into being.”
Points to Ponder
Considering their various relationships to one another, why do you think the tribes were grouped together the way they were?
Levites: A Special Role
If the other tribes of Israel were counted for military duty, we are now told about the duties of the Levites for which they will also be counted. They are responsible for safeguarding the Tabernacle and its utensils, and making sure none of the rest of the Children of Israel come to any harm by getting too close to the Tabernacle and God’s glory.
God tells Moses that He had sanctified the firstborn male of each family when he passed over them during the tenth plague. God now says He appoints the Levites to serve Him in their place. For that purpose, they need to be counted, as do all the qualifying firstborns. The Levites, however, are counted from one month of age, rather than twenty years.
The Levite tribe consists of three families, Gershon, Kehat and Merari. Gershon is to encamp in the west and is responsible for the fabrics of the outer structure of the Tabernacle. Moses counts 7,500 members. Kehat, in the southern part of the camp, numbers 8,600, and is responsible for the Holy vessels of the Tabernacle. Merari camps in the north, and its 6,200 members are responsible for the planks, pillars, sockets, bars, pegs and ropes which make up the frame of the Tabernacle. Moses and Aaron encamp in the eastern portion of the Levite zone, between the entrance of the Tabernacle and the camp of Judah.
God then orders Moses to count the firstborns from the age of one month and up, and exchange their roles, so that the Levites minister in the Tabernacle. Since there are 273 more firstborns than Levites, God orders they be redeemed by the payment of five silver shekels to Aaron and his sons, a practice still in place today.
The Israel Bible points to an unusual verse at the beginning of the passage. The chapter opens by promising to list the children of Moses and Aaron, but goes on only to identify Aaron’s sons. We know, though, that Moses has two sons, as well. The Sages teach that the sons of Aaron were considered Moses’s children, too, for while Aaron gave them physical life, Moses, as their teacher, gave them spiritual life.
Points to Ponder
Why do you think the Levites merited to serve God in place of the firstborns?
Responsibilities of the Kehat Family
Having been counted for redemption purposes, the Levites are now recounted for work, from the age of thirty to fifty. While Gershon’s and Merari’s responsibilities will be elaborated upon next week, our portion ends with the details of Kehat’s work.
The members of Kehat are in charge of the holiest vessels of the Tabernacle. These include the Ark of the Covenant, the Table of the Showbread, the Menorah and the altars. Aaron and his sons, who are also descendents of Kehat, are instructed to cover these holy vessels so that the members of the family do not come in direct contact with the intensity of that holiness and thereby get harmed. Although in charge of transporting the holiest vessels, the members of Kehat are still not permitted to see inside the Holy of Holies. When Aaron and his sons are done, the members of Kehat are commanded to transport them, each one appointed to a specific duty by the priests. Aaron’s son Eleazar is to supervise the transport of the Menorah oil, incense, the meal offering and the anointing oil. He is also in charge of the overall effort.
God warns Moses and Aaron not to “cut…off the tribe of the families of the Kohathites from among the Levites” by being careless with covering the vessels or keeping the people out of the Holy of Holies. According to the Israel Bible, this shows that not only does God care for each of us, He holds us responsible for the well-being of one another, as well.
Points to Ponder
Why do you think the service of the Levites is limited to the ages of 30-50?