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Ach es mateh Levi lo sifkod v’es rosham lo sisa b’soch Bnei Yisrael (Bamidbar 1:49)

This week we begin the book of Bamidbar, which begins with a census of the Jewish nation. Rashi explains (1:1) that the purpose of these frequent counts was to demonstrate Hashem’s love for the Jews. He counted them after they left Egypt, and again after the sin of the golden calf to know how many remained. As Hashem prepared to rest His Divine Presence among them in the Mishkan, He counted them yet again. Hashem stressed to Moshe that he should not count the Levites when performing this census, but they were instead counted separately. This is difficult to understand. If the Levites were the tribe that performed the service inside the Mishkan, they surely should have been included in this count.

Rashi explains that Hashem wanted them counted separately because He knew that everybody who was part of the general census would die in the wilderness as a result of the sin of the spies. Since the Levites had demonstrated their tremendous piety and loyalty in refusing to take part in the sin of the golden calf and in punishing the transgressors, Hashem wanted to spare them from this fate and insisted that they be counted alone. This concept is difficult to understand. Why was it necessary to count the Levites separately in order to protect them? If they didn’t take part in the sin of the spies, why would they have been punished together with the other Jews simply by virtue of the fact that they were counted together with them?

Harav Chaim Shmulevitz, zt”l, explains that although the Levites were righteous, there are times when, difficult as it may be for us to comprehend, Hashem judges not only individuals but also communities. In this case, Hashem knew that there would be a judgment made against the entire nation for the sin of the spies. The decree would mandate that anybody who was part of the community, as defined by the recently-conducted census, be punished together with them. The only way for the Levites to be spared was for them to be counted alone, which would define them as an independent entity and spare them from the decree.

Harav Chaim adds that, fortunately, this attribute of Hashem’s justice works for the good as well. When a person is part of a larger community of righteous individuals, he is able to benefit from their cumulative merits. This may protect him even if his own personal merits are insufficient.

Harav Chaim led the flight of the Mirrer Yeshivah across Europe and Asia during the Holocaust. True to his teachings, he stressed to the students the importance of sticking together during this horrible period of Divine judgment. Amazingly, in spite of the tremendous national suffering which struck the Jewish nation during that period, the Mirrer Yeshivah and its entire student body escaped intact and unscathed.

Although the census of each of the tribes may seem like historical trivia with no application to our daily lives, Harav Chaim teaches us that this isn’t the case. The lesson is that if we affiliate ourselves with a righteous community and volunteer to help with communal organizations, we will benefit from their collective merits. As a result, we will enjoy health, happiness and good blessings.

Parashah Q & A

Q:Rashi explains (3:1) that the Torah refers to the sons of Aharon as Moshe’s progeny because whoever teaches Torah to others is considered as if he gave birth to them. As Moshe taught the entire Torah to every single Jew, in what way are Aharon’s children considered his offspring more than the rest of the Jewish people?

Q:The Torah introduces the concept of replacing the firstborn with the Levites by stating (3:13) that all firstborn Jews became sanctified to Hashem on the day that He killed the firstborn Egyptians, and concluding “Li yih’yu — they shall be Mine.” Since they were being replaced by the Levites, wouldn’t it have been more accurate to say “they were Mine,” and in what way will they be sanctified to Hashem in the future?

A:The Sifsei Chachamim and Ahavas Eisan answer that Moshe was commanded by Hashem to teach the whole Torah to the entire nation. Because he had an explicit command to teach them, he couldn’t be considered as giving birth to them for doing so. On the other hand, he specifically singled out Aharon’s sons to teach them the Torah individually, and for this reason, they were considered to be his children. The Netziv maintains that the concept that one is considered to have given birth to somebody to whom one teaches Torah applies only to the study of the Oral Law, which is the study that truly makes and creates a person. Moshe didn’t begin to teach the Oral Law to the nation as a whole until much later (Devarim 1:5), so at this time they weren’t yet considered his children. Because he had already begun teaching it privately to Aharon’s sons, he was already considered to have given birth to them.

A:Harav Chaim Kanievsky answers based on the fascinating opinion of the Ohr Hachaim Hakadosh (3:45), who writes that although the first-borns lost the right to perform the Divine service after the sin of the golden calf, in the Messianic era they will once again be able to serve in the third Temple. This is alluded to in our verse, which hints that although they were replaced by the Levites at this time, there will come a time in the future when they will once again be sanctified to Hashem and able to serve Him.

Originally from Kansas City, Rabbi Ozer Alport graduated from Harvard, learned in Mir Yerushalayim for five years, and now lives in Brooklyn, where he learns in Yeshivas Beis Yosef, is the author of the recently-published sefer Parsha Potpourri, and gives weekly shiurim. To send comments to the author or to receive his Divrei Torah weekly, please email