CENSUS: WARRIORS vs. WORSHIPPERS

        Governments always ask the question: How many people do we have?  We all feel so often that we are just numbers in a big system.  This was also true for the organization of the Israelites in the desert.  Indeed, the fourth book of the Torah, which is called Numbers (the Hebrew name is Ba'midbar -- "in the desert"), begins with a military oriented census: "Take a census of the entire assembly ... from twenty years of age and up, everyone who is eligible for military service" (Numbers 1:2-3).  Each household provided its count of potential soldiers to the tribe leader and the results were then summed up for each tribe.
        One tribe did not participate in this census but was counted separately and differently.  The Levites were designated to serve in worship, not war.  They were assigned to serve the people and the priests, in the Tent of Assembly and in the Temple.  "Count the sons of Levi ... from one month of age and up" (Numbers 3:15).
        We understand the census of the soldiers.  Those who were twenty years or older could participate in the defense of the people and had to be counted.  But why was Moses instructed to count the Levites from one month of age?  They did not serve at that young age.  "And God spoke to Moses, saying: This is regarding the Levites. From twenty five years old and up they shall come to serve in worship in the Tent of Assembly" (Numbers 8:24).  In fact, although the Levites started serving at an older age than the soldiers, they were counted in the census almost from birth.
        The simple answer to this question is that God has "taken the Levites from among the Children of Israel in place of every firstborn" (Numbers 3:12, also 8:16-19) and, therefore, they had to be counted from birth, a Levite for each firstborn.
        Another answer lies in the difference between the roles of the warrior and the worshipper.  The census of the soldiers is a "head count" (Numbers 1:2) in the service of the people and their government.  It satisfies a temporary physical need.  These people, when called upon, leave their families, their jobs, their daily routines, and go to participate in a war.  It is a major sacrifice, a significant (though not desired) service, but for a limited period of time.
        On the other hand, the Levites' function is spiritual.  Their service, in worship and ritual, is their mission, their life until the age of fifty.  Once the young baby survives the risky first month of life, the soul and spirit are receptive to education and spiritual training for lifetime.  The Levites' service starts immediately then, in years of learning and mental preparation and, therefore, the census counts these young servants from their first month.  Their dedication to long term public service is valued in the Torah as a noble activity, even though it is not voluntary.  We learn that the Torah values persistent activity more than a short term activity, regardless of the risk and intensity involved.

                                        -- Judah Ari-Gur

 

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