Sefer (the
book[of]) Bamidbar is known in English as the "Book
of Numbers," and with good reason. Hashem makes it
a habit of counting the Jewish people over and over. And so, in
this first Parsha of the "Book of Numbers," Hashem
is back for the count as Moshe is commanded to count the Jewish
people another time, and as Rashi explains, "Hashem
counts the Jews because they are precious to Him."
Our sages also
refer to Sefer Bamidbar as the 'Chumash Hapekudim,'
 'the Book of Counting,' which can be loosely translated as the
'Book of Numbers.' It is called 'Chumash Hapekudim' because
Klal Yisroel is counted twice in this Sefer. Once,
at the beginning of this Parsha  Bamidbar, and once again
in Parshat Pinchas.
The first time the
Jews were counted was when they traveled to Mitzrayim (Egypt)
 the number given is 70. When they left Mitzrayim the
number grew to 600,000. Once again, on the eleventh of Tishrei
2448, after the sin of the Eigel Hazahav (Golden Calf),
Hashem counted them by means of a half shekel to determine
how many were left after the sinners died.
This time, on
the first of Iyar, 2449, it is seven months after the
second count. Hashem commands Moshe to count all of the
tribes except for the tribe of Levi. That's because this count
was only for the people who were destined to die in the Midbar
because of the sin of the Golden Calf. Since the Leviyim
stood in opposition to the idol worship, Hashem considered
them "the king's special legions." Levi was chosen
to serve in the Bait Hamikdash in the place of the firstborns,
who were originally designated to perform the service. Hashem
declared, "The Leviyim made themselves close to
me, and I will be close to them."
When Hashem
finally commands Moshe to count the Leviyim, in the second
count of this Parsha, the new criteria for counting is
"..males from a month old upward."
The Torah
says that, "Moshe numbered them according to the word of
Hashem." Moshe asked Hashem how could he possibly
go into tents to count the babies. "No problem," Hashem
responded, "you do your part, and I'll do Mine." Every
time Moshe approaches a tent, a heavenly voice calls out the number
of male Levite infants inside. The count is 22,000.
That leads to
a third count. This time, all the firstborns of Bnei Yisroel
one month old and up. Moshe comes up with 22,273 firstborns.
Now Hashem
is ready to make the switch between firstborns and Leviyim
official. There are 22, 273 firstborns. There are 22,000
Leviyim. Hashem makes an even switch, a firstborn
for a Levi. This leaves 273 firstborns to contend with.
Hashem
tells Moshe that these 273 firstborns should each give five
shekalim to redeem themselves from the service in the
Mishkan. This money is to be given to Aharon and his
sons.
Moshe is faced
with a dilemma. "How do I do that? If I ask the remaining
273 firstborn to give 5 shekalim each, they will say
to me, 'How do you know that I am part of the group of 273 firstborn?
I was already redeemed by a Levi, and exempt from this levy
(no pun intended) of 5 shekalim.' "
What did Moshe do?
He took 22,000 slips of paper, and on each one wrote the word
"Levi." Then he took another 273 slips of paper, and
on all of them wrote "five shekalim." The combined
22,273 lots were placed in a container, from which every firstborn
then drew one lot. Those whose lots read "Levi," were
exempted from the 5 shekalim. The ones whose lots read
"five shekalim," had to come up with 5 shekalim
each.
All together,
those 273 firstborn paid up 1365 shekalim. As Hashem
had instructed, Moshe passed this money on to Aaron and his
sons.
This is where the
law of "redeeming a firstborn son" with 5 Shekalim,
as discussed in Shmot Parshat Bo, originates. It is called
"Pidyon HaBen."
Why
5 Shekalim?
To atone for the sale of Yosef, Rachel's firstborn, who was
sold by his brothers for 5 shekalim (20 pieces of silver).
Incosistancy
Resolved
The Talmud relates
the following story:
A king once challenged Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai. He said, "The
Torah says that the family of Gershon numbered 7500, Kehat
numbered 8600, and Merari numbered 6200, which makes a total, for
all three families, of 22,300. But Moshe recorded a total of only
22,000. Either Moshe was a bad mathematician, or he was a thief,
for deliberately leaving out 300 from the true total so he could
collect the extra shekalim.
Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai replied, "You're forgetting that
the Leviyim also had firstborn children. Moshe came up with
300 of them. There was no reason to redeem the Levite firstborns,
or to transfer the holiness, since they were already firstborns
and Leviyim at once and possessed the holiness already!
Did you ever wonder why the Shevet Levi has by far the smallest
population of the twelve Shevatim? At 22,000 members from
the ages of one month and up, and a mere 8,000 members over the
age of thirty, Levi was less than half the size of the next smallest
Shevet. How could it be that the one Shevet that served
the holiest functions of our nation and produced the special family
of Kohanim for our most elevated service could wind up the
least of all in numbers?
Ramban explains that Shevet Levi was the one tribe
of Bnei Yisroel that was never enslaved by the Egyptians.
Since the tribe of Levi was constantly involved in Torah study,
they merited special Divine protection, even in Mitzrayim.
But this protection had its price. Hashem gave special Divine
assistance also to the majority of Jews who were subjugated and
brutalized. As it says in Parshat Shmot (1:12): 'But the
more (the Egyptians) oppressed them, the more (the Israelites) proliferated
and spread. ' The other Shevatim increased at a miraculous
birthrate, in direct proportion to the degree they were persecuted.
But Levi, not affected by the miracle, grew at a natural rate corresponding
to its more settled circumstances. Thus Levi was the smallest shevet
at the time of Yetziat Mitzrayim (the Exodus from Egypt).
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