Bamidbar - the Power in Numbers

The Smallest Tribe
For most of the beginning of the parshah, the populations of the tribes of Israel are described in detail. The tribe of Judah numbers 74,600. The tribe of Zevulun numbers 57,400. And even the tribe of Binyamin numbers 35,400. Yet among all the tribes listed, one tribe stands out from the rest.

The sum of the male Levites according to their families, from the age of one month and upward, counted by Moses and Aaron according to the word of the Lord, was twenty two thousand.
Bamidbar 3:39 
In carrying out the reckoning of the current standing of the tribes, the tribe of Levi stands at a significantly lower amount than the rest of the tribes. Not by hundreds, but by as much as 13,400, when compared to the census of the tribe of Binyamin.

Not only is Levi the smallest of the tribes, but in this parshah, Levi is listed last among all the tribal countings.

Why is Levi so much smaller?
Why does Levi stand out so separately in the presentation of the tribes?

How Come the Tribe of Levi is So Small?
The Or HaChaim HaKadosh refers to the observations of the Ramban, who notes that of all the tribes, the tribe of Levi is considered to be close to G-d. They are the tribe that is dedicated to serving in the Mishkan and Temple. This is the tribe of Moshe Rabeinu and Aharon HaKohen. They are the tribe that was not involved in the sin of the golden calf. They were not afflicted by plagues.

So how come Levi is so much smaller than the other tribes? Why even the number that is designated in the counting of Levi - 22,000, this number is only reached by taking a counting from every soul that is at least 1 month old. The other tribes are counted from 20 years old.

The commentators raise a number of explanations for this situation.

Yaacov's Anger
One reason brought is based on the comments made by Yaacov in blessing all of the tribes. Towards Levi he expressed anger.
Simeon and Levi are brothers; stolen instruments are their weapons. Let my soul not enter their counsel; my honor, you shall not join their assembly, for in their wrath they killed a man, and with their will they hamstrung a bull.
Cursed be their wrath for it is mighty, and their anger because it is harsh. I will separate them throughout Jacob, and I will scatter them throughout Israel.
Breishit 49:5-7

Exempt from Work
Another reason given is that the tribe of Levi was not subject to the hardships and work in Egypt like the rest of the tribes. G-d made a special blessing in direct correlation to the hardships experienced, so the Jewish people should be blessed with fertility, as described in the verse:

The children of Israel were fruitful and swarmed and increased and became very very strong, and the land became filled with them.
Shmot 1:7
Less of a Burden
The Kli Yakar also raises several explanations. One being that since the Levites would be supported by the rest of the Jewish people through tithes, that they were purposely made a small tribe to be less of a burden.

A Tribe of Tzadikim
Another explanation comes that G-d saw that not all of the Levites would be righteous, so this amount was taken from the world so that all that was left was the clean and upright group for carrying out the holy duties in the Mishkan and Temple.

The Deeper Source of the Levite's Numbers
Both the Or HaChaim HaKadosh and the Kli Yakar turn away from these other explanations and determine that another reason is clearer. Both commentators cite the narrative from Masechet Sotah.
 A Tanna taught: Amram was the greatest man of his generation; when he saw that the wicked Pharaoh had decreed 'Every son that is born ye shall cast into the river', he said: In vain do we labour. He arose and divorced his wife.  All [the Levites] thereupon arose and divorced their wives.
Sotah 12A
A Fateful Decision
How could such a great leader, a gadol hador, make such an extreme and fateful decision? What reasoning did he go through support this dire conclusion or was the pressure of the times clouding his thinking?

The Or HaChaim brings a support from Masechet Taanit.
Resh Lakish said: A man may not have marital relations during years of famine, as it is said, 'And unto Joseph were born two sons before the year of famine came.'
Taanit 11A
Rashi adds in his commentary on this talmudic statement, "that in this time [of famine] a man must treat himself with hardship."

Really it would appear that Amram, a bold leader and scholar, followed talmudic reasoning and used didactic logic. Out of this cold, calculated process he reached his conclusion on how to act at that time in Egypt, no matter how difficult it seemed.

The narrative in Masechet Sotah continues, with the response to Amram's monumental decision.
His daughter [Miriam] said to him, 'Father, your decree is more severe than Pharaoh's. Pharaoh decreed only against the males while you decreed against the males and females. Pharaoh only decreed concerning this world while you decreed concerning this world and the World to Come.  In the case of the wicked Pharaoh there is a doubt whether his decree will be fulfilled or not, while in your case, you are a tzadik, and it is certain that your decree will be fulfilled, as it is said: Thou shalt also decree a thing, and it shall be established unto thee!' He arose and took his wife back; and they all arose and took their wives back.
Sotah 12A
Despite the calculated, logical reasoning backing up Amram's decision. His daughter succeeds in swaying him to abandon this direction and continue to embrace life, despite the seeming futility that the reality surrounds him.

Dry Logical Vs. Passion
The tribe of Levi was left reduced in numbers from the logic employed by Amram in deciding that the circumstances of their servitude in Egypt were like the suffering and a deadly famine. Yet why did only the tribe of Levi end up in this state, why there the other tribes even 3 to 4 times larger than Levi?
R. Avira expounded: For the merit of the righteous women who lived in that generation, the Israelites were delivered from Egypt. When they went to draw water, the Holy One, blessed be He, arranged that small fishes should enter their pitchers, which they drew up half full of water and half full of fishes. They then set two pots on the fire, one for hot water and the other for the fish, which they carried to their husbands in the field, and washed, anointed, fed, gave them to drink and had intercourse with them among the sheepfolds.
Sotah 11B
The women of this generation saw a different reality from Amram? Did they not see the vile decrees of Pharoh  dooming all males to be thrown into the Nile?


The women were not oblivious to the harsh reality of the time, but they had a different perspective. Rather than apply a calculating, dry analysis of the situation and out of that conclude how to act, they responded emotionally. They saw a snowball of events unfolding, leading from one tragedy to the next. Whereas Amram sought to halt the harsh wheels turning ever closer, the women responded by embracing life. This was not a time for rational decisions. The forces upon them were too big. So it was just this time to abandon rationale and let passion drive the future of the Jewish people.

Small Number, Big Reminder
In taking count of the tribes of Israel, Levi is presented last. The significance of this placement should be all too apparent. We first see the big impressive numbers of tribes like Judah and Zevulun, and finally to come and see the smallest tribe at the end.

When we come to the tribe of Levi and are confronted with this number and the decisions that brought this situation about, then we can look back at all of the parshah up to this point. Consider if the dry, didactic logic of Amram had not only influenced the tribe of Levi but the entire Jewish people. Consider if the women wouldn't have been heeded under this strict decision. Then we would be looking at an entirely different counting, one where all the tribes' populations would be but a third what is recorded.

We see in this number a reminder to look beyond the cold, analytical facts but when the fate of the Jewish people is at stake we are in need of a vision that goes beyond our reasoning, but passion and a sheer raw desire to survive.

1 comment:

  1. Very impressive dvar torah!! We look forward to reading the next one!
    Kol hakavod!!!