The main idea in Parshas Bamidbar is the census done by Hashem of the Bnei Yisrael. Rashi explains that since Hashem loves us so much, he is constantly counting the nation throughout the Torah, the same way someone constantly keeps track of his favorite possessions. The Torah gives an extensive list of the amount of people in each tribe, their leaders, and how they camped. The fact that so many of these pesukim are written when they are not completely necessary is one proof to Rashi’s statement.
After the counting, the final total of men above the age of twenty was 603,550. With twelve tribes being counted, the average tribe comes out to roughly 50,000 men a tribe. However, one tribe is missing, the tribe of Levi. Rashi (Bamidbar 1:49) gives two reasons for this. First off, Shevet Levi is referred to as “לגיון של מלך”, the legion of the King; they were the tribe in charge of the services in the Mishkan and the Beis Hamikdash and as such, they deserved to be counted separately. Secondly, later on in Parshas Shelach, there is a decree put out on all twenty- year olds and above who had been part of this counting here, that they would die in the desert without entering Eretz Yisrael. This decree was a result of the sins of both the Golden Calf and the Spies. Since Shevet Levi had nothing to do with the Golden Calf and less to do with the sin of the Spies, Hashem wanted to protect them from that decree and did not include them in this counting.
As we said earlier, the average tribe numbered roughly 50,000 men ages twenty and up. When we look at the numbers for Shevet Levi however, something seems very off. The final number for Shevet Levi is a mere 22,273 men! And not only that, Shevet Levi was counted from the age of only one month and up, meaning they have twenty years more worth of people to include in the counting and they still don’t reach even half of the average amount! What happened to Shevet Levi?
The Ramban answers this question with a very famous idea. During the slavery in Mitzrayim, the Egyptians tried to control the Bnei Yisrael’s population by working them extra hard. However, Hashem made a miracle that the Jewish women gave birth to six babies at a time. This resulted in a population explosion, exactly the opposite of what the Egyptians intended. Shevet Levi however, was not included in this miracle since they were not enslaved. Therefore, says the Ramban, they grew at a normal rate and were not nearly as big as the other tribes.
The Ohr HaChaim asks on this answer that the midrash says that before Yaakov died, the Bnei Yisrael’s population had already reached 600,000 men, which was the same number as when they left Mitzrayim. However, we know that the slavery didn’t start till after Yaakov died. So the population explosion couldn’t have happened as a result of the slavery, it occurred before it even started! There are two answers given to this question. The first one is, the Ohr HaChaim himself answers, that the miracle was that the Bnei Yisrael grew at the same rate they had before despite the hard slavery now. The second answer is that while Bnei Yisrael left with 600,000 men, the Midrash teaches us that four-fifths of Bnei Yisrael died during the Makkah of Choshech (Darkness). So the population did grow during the slavery, but the effects of it were wiped out before they actually left Mitzrayim.
Regardless, the Ohr HaChaim brings another answer to this question. (This answer is also found in the Kli Yakar.) In Parshas Shemos, the pasuk makes specific mention that Moshe’s father, Amram, returned to his wife, Yocheved, after they had been separated. The reason for their separation was the decree of Paroh that all Jewish boys born from that time on would be thrown into the Nile River. The Gemarah in Sotah (12a) explains that the reason the pasuk has to specifically mention that Amram returned to his wife was because the entire Shevet Levi had separated from their wives as a result of this decree. The answer now is obvious, because the entire Shevet separated from their wives for a significant period of time, of course they were smaller than everyone else! In fact, the Ohr HaChaim says that it was a miracle they stayed as big as they were!
At this point, you might ask that while the fear of having your son thrown in the river was a very serious one, wasn’t this an extreme measure that the entire Shevet should separate from their wives? In fact, Miriam convinced Amram to return to Yocheved by using this very logic! The Ohr HaChaim explains that as a result of the slavery, Bnei Yisrael lost a little bit of their common sense and did not think about what would happen to their kids after they were born. If they were thrown into the river, if they had to be abandoned in the fields, it did not really affect them. However, Shevet Levi was not involved in the slavery and were also known as very distinguished people and therefore could not bring themselves to have children when there was a strong possibility of their dying. Therefore, they all separated from their wives.
This last point was very interesting to me. The pasuk in Parshas Vezos Habracha says about Shevet Levi, “הָאֹמֵר לְאָבִיו וּלְאִמּוֹ לֹא רְאִיתִיו וְאֶת אֶחָיו לֹא הִכִּיר וְאֶת [בנו] בָּנָיו לֹא יָדָע” “(He) who said of his father and his mother, ‘I do not see him’; neither did he recognize his brothers, nor did he know his children” (Devarim 33:9). This is referring to after the Golden Calf, which Shevet Levi did not participate in, when Shevet Levi was told to kill all those deserving of death from the sin. They did not hesitate, and whether the person was a stranger, a friend, or even a relative, the word of Hashem reigned supreme above all. They went out and killed every single one of them. This same seemingly vicious and fierce tribe could so much not bear the thought of there even being a possibility of their children being killed, that they separated from their wives, removing the possibility of all children, not just boys. This clearly shows that everything Shevet Levi did, whether it was to be hard and fierce or soft and kind, was purely in service to Hashem. Small wonder they are called “לגיון של מלך”, the legion of the King.
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