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וַיְדַבֵּ֨ר יְהוָ֧ה אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֛ה בְּמִדְבַּ֥ר סִינַ֖י
“In the Wilderness”. We open up the Book of Numbers to these words... In the Wilderness. When you think of “wilderness”, what comes to mind? Desolate, inhospitable, desert land, right? It is precisely this environment that the Nation of Israel wandered through for 40 years following Hashem’s great salvation for His people out of Egypt, and before entering Eretz Israel.
On a spiritual level, what does the wilderness represent? It is precisely this sort of challenging environment that Hashem brings His children through as a testing ground. The act of salvation is such a mighty and powerful experience – coming into the knowledge of our Heavenly Father, and the freedom from our former lives of bondage. But it is the life after that moment that matters just as much as we learn to live our lives in a material and secular world while simultaneously learning to cling and draw closer to Hashem.
It is against this backdrop that we open up this week’s parashat and find Hashem telling Moses to conduct a counting of the people… a “census” (hence the name of the Book of Numbers). In Canada, a census is currently underway (conducted every 5 years). If you have ever had the opportunity to evaluate the data collected and analyzed (typically released the following year), it features intricate details of the population – tally according to gender, race, language, income, occupation, living arrangements, and the list goes on. The data carries valuable insights with a host of useful purposes.
שְׂא֗וּ אֶת־רֹאשׁ֙ כָּל־עֲדַ֣ת בְּנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל
“Take a census of the entire assembly of the Children of Israel” (Numbers 1:2)
Here in the Wilderness of Sinai, Hashem asked Moses to conduct a census – the second of three in the Torah. What is interesting here is that the first census was done right after the sinning of the Golden Calf, at which point the men of Israel totaled 603,550 across all of the tribes. Here, 6 months later, this census also interestingly totaled 603,550. There is one notable difference though – the Tribe of Levi was included in the tally the first time, but not the second time – meaning that between the two censuses, the rest of the tribes increased in number according to the number of Levites recorded in the first census. Clearly, the reason for this second census had to do with the Levites; and Hashem chose this precise point in time to do so when the rest of the tribes reached 603,550 men, the same tally as in the first census.
Why the separation of the Levites from the rest of the tribes?
קַ֣ח אֶת־הַלְוִיִּ֗ם תַּ֤חַת כָּל־בְּכוֹר֙ בִּבְנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל
"Take the Levites in place of every firstborn among the Children of Israel…
וְהָיוּ־לִ֥י הַלְוִיִּ֖ם אֲנִ֥י יְהוָֽה
The Levites shall be Mine: I am Hashem." (Numbers 3:45)
The Levites were about to take on the elevated status of “firstborn”, previously held by all male firstborns of Israel. Interestingly in this second census, the Levites were counted from one month of age and up, whereas the rest of the tribes were counted from 20 years of age and up. Or HaChaim writes: “The reason… is because this age of one month corresponds to the proper time for redeeming those who the Levites were to replace, namely the firstborn of the Jewish people… When the Levites in the Wilderness replaced the firstborn, they and their children became forever sanctified.”
Not only do we learn of the separation through sanctification of the Levites from the rest of the tribes, but we gain further instructions…
וְהַלְוִיִּ֞ם יַחֲנ֤וּ סָבִיב֙ לְמִשְׁכַּ֣ן הָעֵדֻ֔ת וְלֹֽא־יִהְיֶ֣ה קֶ֔צֶף עַל־עֲדַ֖ת בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל
“The Levites shall encamp around the Tabernacle of the Testimony so that there shall be no wrath upon the assembly of the Children of Israel” (Numbers 1:53)
Moving forward, it was the sole duty of the Levites to safeguard the Mishkan (Tabernacle), and later, the Mikdash (Temple). In a very precise way, each of the 3 families from among the Levites – Kohath, Gershon and Merari – were positioned around the Mishkan, to the South, West and North, respectively; the most notable of the Kohathites, the Kohanim (high priesthood) – Aaron and his sons (as well as Moses) – were positioned to the East, at the entrance to the Mishkan (see diagram below). As the Levites were sanctified unto Hashem, they lived their lives on a spiritually elevated level, and as such, they were intended to serve as role models for the tribes, to show the tribes what a sanctified life to Hashem looked like.
Around the Levites, in a similarly precise manner, the 12 tribes were positioned in camps of three – to the West, South, East and North, again, with the most prominent camp headed by Judah located to the East. This very precise positioning never changed throughout the 40 years that Israel spent in the Wilderness. The Mishkan was in the center, guarded by the Levites on all 4 sides, and finally the 12 tribes surrounding the Levites.
Think of this another way – corresponding to the 6 physical dimensional directions (up, down, west, south, east, north):
The Mishkan became the dwelling place for the Shechinah – a conduit between Heaven and Earth (UPand DOWN)
The Kohanim and First Camp were to the EAST of the Mishkan
The Kohathites and Second Camp were to the SOUTH
The Gershonites and Third Camp – were to the WEST
The Merarites and Fourth Camp – were to the NORTH
This is a model of order speaking primarily to the 4 directions in which we move in this physical world. It is the addition of the Mishkan that adds the additional 2 spiritual directions allowing us to connect to our Father in Heaven.
This is an earthly rendition of a Heavenly concept. The Book of Revelation (Revelation 21) speaks of a Holy Jerusalem coming down out of Heaven, with 12 gates – 3 on each side, with length, width and height all equal in measurement. On a more mystical level, Ezekiel’s vision (Ezekiel 1) describes the Divine Chariot being upheld by 4 Chayot with 4 faces and 4 wings.
What are we being taught here? Hashem was showing Israel that each and every one of the 12 tribes had a unique role and placement in the makeup of the nation. He was prescribing for them their placement in an orderly fashion around the epicenter where His Shechinah was to reside. This model served them for the next nearly 40 years they would traverse the Wilderness. Only while they were in the Wilderness did the Levites serve as a form of “partition” between the 12 tribes and the Mishkan.
This partition was never intended to be there; the elevation of the Levites to firstborn status was given only after the sinning of the Golden Calf. Before that event occurred, Hashem said to Moses: “You shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” (Exodus 19:6) This was a “temporary” partition, intended to remind the people that their sin created a space between them and Hashem, and Hashem chose the Levites to fill that space to ensure that there remained a connection fully consecrated in holiness to Him. The people were to look at the Levites as role models on how to sanctify their own lives before entering Eretz Israel and taking possession of the Land.
What about us today? The same message remains. We have our feet grounded here on earth. We have our duties, obligations and desires to accomplish and pursue in our lifetimes. It is up to us to determine what is our epicenter, what is our source – is it the materialism and vanity of this world or is it our desire to connect to Hashem, our Creator? Just as the Levites were role models for the tribes, showing them how to similarly sanctify and elevate their lives, we have Yeshua HaMashiach who is our point of eternal salvation connecting us to Hashem.
Yeshua said to his disciples in John 14:16-17:
אָנֹכִי הַדֶּרֶךְ וְהָאֱמֶת וְהַחַיִּים לֹא־יָבֹא אִישׁ אֶל־הָאָב בִּלְתִּי עַל־יָדִי׃
לוּ־יְדַעְתֶּם אֹתִי גַּם אֶת־אָבִי יְדַעְתֶּם וּמֵעַתָּה יְדַעְתֶּם אֹתוֹ וְגַם רְאִיתֶם אֹתוֹ׃
“I am the way, the truth and the life. No one will come to the Father except by me. If you only knew me, you would also know my Father. From now on you know Him and have also seen Him.” (John 14:16-17)
Do we desire to partner with Hashem or not? If we desire to partner with Him, then we must learn to replicate Yeshua our Saviour in actions and deeds. Only then can we learn our prescribed place within the framework of Hashem’s Kingdom here on earth. What are the abilities and skills that He has blessed us with? Are we using them to their fullest potential? Are we operating in perfect unity with Him and with the rest of the Kingdom?
Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 12:20-26: “For the body does not consist of one member but of many… As it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as He chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” …God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another.”
May we fix our eyes on Hashem. May we replicate Yeshua HaMashiach to sanctify our lives in the service of Him. May we learn our place in His Kingdom. May we serve Him with all our hearts, souls and resources. And may we be one with each other and with Him.