The book of Bamidbar opens with instructions to count the households of Israel. Specifically the males over the age of 20 were counted, “all who go out to serve in the army in Israel” were counted according to their legions. (Numbers 1:3)
The verse uses the words “litzvo tzava,” which we translate, “to serve in the army.” This is the classic meaning of tzava, and many commentaries view the count as some sort of registration for military service. Rashi in fact points out that anyone below the age of 20 was not eligible to serve in the army, and this is derived from the exclusion of those below the age of 20 from this count.
Ramban agrees with the general gist of Rashi’s interpretation. He offers three reasons the census was undertaken, one of the reasons being to prepare for the military conquest of the Promised Land. Ramban differs, however, in his interpretation of the words “litzvo tzava.” To serve in the army? Yes. But what sort of army is it referring to? Here Ramban departs from the classical military meaning of army. He writes that the count of all male members ages 20 and over was to determine the number of “all those who go out to assemble in the congregation of Israel.” The count, according to Ramban, established the number of active members in the congregation of Israel; it provided information on those who could participate in the functioning of the nation, in the legions of Israel.
On what basis does Ramban depart from the classic meaning of army? Why does he ascribe a different interpretation to “army” here?
Rabbi Shalom Hammer (our expected guest for Shavuot) suggests that Ramban feels compelled to interpret this differently due to the exclusion of the Levites from the main census. The Levites were counted separately, after the main census. There are two differences that stand out in the count of the Levites. The age qualification for the Levites differed from the rest of the nation, beginning from one month old rather than 20 years. Moreover, the Levites were employed for a specific purpose during the count: to serve as guardians and aids for the Mishkan, especially in regard to its transport.
We must wonder, why were the Levites excluded from the regular army of Israel? If any one tribe was to be included in the army it should be the tribe of Levi! Levi had demonstrated great capacity for military prowess. Already as a youngster Levi had taken the lead in the campaign to defeat the city of Shechem, avenging the abduction of Dinah. In doing so Levi proved himself to be a great strategist as well as a courageous soldier. Levi also demonstrated great loyalty to his family through that mission. But even more than that, when the Levite tribe refused to participate in the construction and celebration of the Golden Calf Levi demonstrated unwavering fidelity to the God of Israel. In the aftermath of that terrible event it was the Levite tribe that rallied to Moses’ call to reassert God’s dominion among the people. These qualities of perseverance and loyalty are sorely needed in any military campaign. If the purpose of the census was for military registration alone Levi should not have been excluded.
But then, Levi was not excluded entirely; the Levite tribe was set apart for a specific task in the “army of God.” They served as the special forces guarding the inner circle. They were the British SAS, the American Navy SEALS. The role of the Levites reflected the goals of the “army” on the whole. This was not a classic recruitment for a typical military force. Israel did not require weapons training and simulated exercises. Being a member of God’s army meant furthering God’s purpose of creation. As God proclaimed to Zerubavel, “Not by valor nor by might, rather by My spirit, says God of legions.” (Zacharia 4:6) The nation was counted to participate in this great battlefield of commitment to the values and ideals the Torah holds dear.
The Levites had an important lesson to teach to the other tribes. Most people have stunted growth issues in spiritual areas. It is difficult for us to find meaning in prayer, we don’t naturally gravitate toward a relationship with God. It takes great effort, and often we are mobilized only through force, when we are pushed up against a wall, when we are in a foxhole of a sort, a moment of despair, a crisis. Only then does prayer suddenly reflect deep meaning to us and we develop under such circumstances a relationship with God. Such difficult moments are catalysts for spiritual growths and they push us over the hump or out of the rut in which we are stuck. Levi was known for being proactive in these matters, for being adept at spiritual development without crisis. This quality gave them the strength and willpower to resist the lure of the Golden Calf and other similar temptations.
The tribe of Levi was not excluded from the nation of Israel. To the contrary, Levi was singled out to illustrate the purpose of the forces of Israel generally. As the tribe who stood by Torah values and showed fealty to God in a time when others were weak, Levi earned the privilege of perpetually serving God as the honor guard of the Temple and closest officers of God’s legions. For this reason Ramban does not consider the “army” for which all members of Israel were being recruited in the military sense, rather those who “go out to assemble in the congregation of Israel.” As soldiers of God, the entire nation were treated to the ultimate roll-call. And they stood at attention.
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