Counting the Levites Separately
Bamidbar, the book of Numbers, begins with the census of the Jewish people. According to Rashi, G-d’s census was a sign of endearment; it indicates how each one of us is precious to Him.
This census counted every 20 year old male; that being the age of military conscription.
However, this census excluded men of the tribe of Levi:
“But, you shall not count the tribe of Levi, and you shall not take their census among the children of Israel.”
The Levites, the Torah continues, would be counted separately and include all males from the age of one month.
Rashi provides the rationale for the Levites exceptional status:
“G-d foresaw that all those who were 20 years and above and counted will be decreed to die in the desert. He said, ‘Let not these [Levites] be included for they are Mine; because they did not err with the [Golden] Calf.’”
Did the Levites Rebel Against Entering the Land of Israel?
Sifsei Chachamim asks, why did G-d have the notion that counting the Levites with the rest of the community meant that they would be punished alongside those who followed the Spies into their rebellion against the Land of Israel? Rashi himself stated that the Levites did not join their brethren in rebellion against the Land. Indeed, the Spies who slandered the Land of Israel represented all of the tribes except the Tribe of Levi.
Sifsei Chachamim answers that the Levites did not initially participate in the rebellion because no Levite spied on and slandered the Land. However, when we are told that all of the Jewish people accepted the report of the Spies and wept, it is possible that even the Tribe of Levi joined in the tears.
However, this approach is difficult to understand. If indeed the tribe of Levi participated in the collective rejection of the Land of Israel, why wouldn’t G-d condemn them to perish in the desert with their brethren? Why did He spare the Levites from the fate of the rest of the Jewish community?
Spared Collective Punishment
Another approach to understanding Rashi’s assertion is based on a Midrash that states that G-d punished everyone who had reached the age of 20 even if they personally did not participate in the sin. The Tribe of Levi was spared the collective punishment meted out to all those above 20 regardless of their innocence.
However, this approach merely leads us to another question. Why would G-d punish people who had not sinned with the Spies? The fact they did not join the majority of Jews in crying that night should have earned them special merit and distinction deserving of rich reward. Yet, the Midrash implies that they would have been punished with all those who sinned.
Furthermore, this approach does not explain how counting the Levites separately and from the age of 30 days immunized them against suffering in the future?
Resisting Mass Hysteria
A simple and straightforward answer can be offered.
By choosing them at such a tender age, G-d signaled that He had invested them with an inner fortitude. This enabled the Levites to reject the mass hysteria that overcame the other children of Israel upon hearing the slanderous report of the 10 Spies. Had they not been so endowed, there would have been a significant chance that they too might have sinned.
One can still raise a question. Rashi stated that the reason G-d separated the Levites to protect them in the future was that He considered them to be His, for they had not erred with the Golden Calf. Why then did G-d need to separate them to protect them from the sin of the Spies, when they had already demonstrated their loyalty to G-d in the Golden Calf debacle?
The fact that they had the inner fortitude to resist the sin of the Golden Calf, it appears, failed to protect them from the mass hysteria that gripped the Jewish nation when they heard the slanderous report about Israel. Why? Why would they need an extra boost of support from the time they were 30 days old until age 20 to keep them from going with the tide?
Contrasting the Sins of the Golden Calf and the Spies
Upon closer examination the sins of the Golden Calf and the Spies reveal several significant differences:
First, the Golden Calf was not a national sin. Only part of the community committed it, as is evidenced by the fact that only a minority were directly punished. By contrast, all of the Jewish people (only the men, of course; the women did not sin) beside the Levites cried that night.
G-d therefore was concerned that the mass hysteria would have a deleterious effect on the Levites too. When an entire nation does something it is hard to stand apart. Indeed, one of the greatest challenges to our devotion to G-d has been peer pressure. For this reason the Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law) begins with the words, “Do not be ashamed [to perform Mitzvos] because of the cynics.”
G-d therefore separated the Levite men into a distinct category of activists endowed with the power to resist any pressure; to stand up to the entire nation, if need be.
Second, the sin of the Spies was qualitatively different from the sin of the Golden Calf. The idolatry of the Golden Calf compromised the Peoples’ belief in the unity of G-d. By contrast, the sin of the Spies resulted from a heightened sense (albeit, misplaced) of spirituality. They believed that going into Israel would leave them with a watered down spiritual existence. Staying in the desert allowed them the luxury of living an entirely ethereal life.
It would thus have been much more difficult for the Levites, known for their heightened spirituality and passion for G-d, to distance themselves from the sin of the Spies, who sought to remain in the desert to be more spiritual. They too desired this lofty existence. G-d therefore instilled in them a deeper consciousness that would allow them to execute faithfully G-d’s plan even when it was at odds with their spiritual ambition.
In the final analysis, misplaced spirituality can be as detrimental to our lives as misplaced physicality. Judaism is not about spirituality for its own sake; Judaism is about G-d.
To be sure, leading a spiritual life and engaging in spiritual activities is an extremely important part of Judaism; but it is not the end, it is merely a means to an end. The true goal is contributing to G-d’s plan for the universe, which included primarily conquest and settlement of the Land of Israel.
When our material existence gets in the way of fulfilling G-d’s plan we readily recognize it as a deviation and a sin.
It is no less a deviation when our spiritual ambitions get in the way of fulfilling G-d’s plan for the universe.
We are now in a similar position as the Jews were following the Exodus.
The Modern Day Golden Calf and Spies
We too are poised to enter the Promised Land with Moshiach at our head. We too have to contend with twin threats and challenges to our role:
The first is the fight against the powerful heresies of modern society. Chief among them are the secular theories that attempt to lure us away from belief in a Creator. This and many other alluring philosophies and -isms are the modern day Golden Calves.
But even when we successfully withstand the challenges from the false g-ds and Golden Calves of modernity, we are confronted with the challenge of carving out a comfortable niche in Galus-exile with all the spiritual amenities it has offered.
The Rebbe Rashab (Rabbi Sholom Dovber Schneersohn, the fifth leader of Chabad) spoke prophetically of two periods prior to the coming of Moshiach, based on the end of Psalm 89:
“As your enemies reviled, O G-d, as Your enemies reviled [Mishi’checha] Your anointed one’s steps.”
The Rebbe Rashab prophesied that before the coming of Moshiach there will first be a period of reviling G-d; where ideologies and -isms would spring up and wage war against G-d. He was presciently referring to the rise of communism and other stark heresies that threatened to take over the world and which fought tooth and nail to eradicate every trace of G-d and religion.
However, the Rebbe Rashab predicted that there would also be a time when even those who are devoted to serving G-d will hold back their belief in and anticipation for Moshiach.
One may suggest that these two stages parallel the sin of the Golden Calf and the desert generation’s refusal to enter into the Promised Land.
The Rebbe Rashab then declared that the students of the Lubavitch Yeshivah he founded were the “Soldiers of the House of David” whose task was to wage war against these two obstructions to Redemption.
Under the leadership of our Rebbe, these students morphed into a world-wide movement of Shluchim-emissaries dedicated to spreading the light of Judaism throughout the world. Thank G-d, as a result of these efforts the Soviet Union, that apparently unbreachable bastion of heresy, was vanquished.
The Rebbe then set out to tackle the second challenge by appointing and empowering all of us to be the modern day Levites. Our mission is to prepare ourselves and the entire world to greet Moshiach and enable him to usher in the Final Redemption.
No longer can we remain content in our exile, even though we can now devote ourselves unhampered to Torah study, Mitzvah observance and achieving the greatest spiritual heights.
Like the Levites of old, we successfully withstood the challenge of adversity and the Golden Calves of society. G-d has therefore empowered us as well to withstand the allure of the spiritual treasures and comfortable niche we have carved out in Galus.
We are the generation of Levites who will not succumb to the Spies. We will lead our generation and all past generations into the Promised Land with Moshiach at our head!