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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 first-borns, 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 first-borns.

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 first-born to give 5 shekalim each, they will say to me, 'How do you know that I am part of the group of 273 first-born? 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 first-born 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 first-born 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 first-born 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 first-borns, or to transfer the holiness, since they were already first-borns 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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