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G-d spoke to Moses… saying, “Count the Levites… (and include) every male aged over one month.” (3:14-15)
The Levites were singled out to serve G-d on behalf of the Israelites in the Tabernacle and later on in the Temple, because they were the only tribe not involved in the Sin of the Golden Calf (Rashi; c.f. Ex. 32:29). Unlike all the other tribes whose census was taken on the basis of men aged twenty and above, the Levites were counted from the age of one month. According to the Talmud (Shabbat 119b) the one-month threshold was the earliest moment that a newborn baby was regarded as viable.
The commentators suggest various reasons for counting the Levites from so early an age. For example, the Midrash (Num. Rabbah 3:7) brings the idea that G-d wished to reward the Levites for their loyal service. So when they reached thirty years old (8:24) and began to serve in the sanctuary, G-d considered it as though they had indeed done so from the age of one month, and He rewarded them accordingly. Remember that the Levites served in various capacities – such as Temple guards and choristers (c.f. 8:26 and Rashi ad loc), and the Priests – a branch of the Levite tribe - had the more specialized tasks with the offerings. Indeed, the prophet Samuel is credited with having judged Israel all the days of his life (Samuel I: 7:15), although he judged for only ten years after the death of Eli. Nevertheless his lifelong dedication was worthy in the eyes of G-d as though he had served Him in that capacity his whole life long.
Maimonides gives a different explanation. He states that they are the ‘legion of G-d’ (Laws of Shemittah and Yovel 13:12-13) whose task is to serve Him and teach His Torah and His way of life to others. Any Israelite who follows the example of the Levites “becomes sanctified as holy of holies and G-d will be his portion and heritage for all Eternity. In This World he will merit what befits him, as the Priests and Levites merited it.” This aspect of the Levites’ role is lifelong and independent of age and strength.
In addition, consider the suggestion below:
The Tabernacle, and later the First and Second Temples differed radically from synagogues in the following respect. The synagogue is designed to attract all Israelites – young and old, male and female – to communal prayer. Indeed full services may not be conducted without the minimum quorum of ten males at least thirteen years old. The emphasis is on numbers: nine Priests cannot make up a minyan, but ten cobblers can. Nine learned scholars do not form a minyan, but a Bar-Mitzvah boy can – by joining them!
The Temple, in contrast, is of a very different character. It is G-d’s exclusive residence on Earth – and only those selected by Him (the Priests and others from the Tribe of Levi) may enter the inner parts of His sanctuary. Those people have the privilege of serving the Almighty at His home, materially supported by the rest of the community (18:8-32).
The Levites’ role in the Creation has two important aspects. Firstly, their privileged involvement with the Temple is not based on their scholarship and good deeds, but solely on paternal lineage: if his father was a Priest, he is; if his father was a Levite, so is he. Secondly it was an exclusive relationship – serving G-d at His exclusive address, in such a way as to maintain and enhance the spiritual level of the Israelites.
A Levite had to be aware of his privileged background. And that had to be part of his training from the very start of his life. Psychologists (such as in the classic studies by Skeels and Dye, 1939; Skeels, 1966) have demonstrated that what a child ‘picks up’ in his very first years makes a crucial contribution to his personality throughout life. Thus a Levite child has to psychologically grow into his exclusive role and position, and it must be done in such a way that it will be part of him, and not something extraneous. He should not, when he grows up, feel like a spiritual ‘nouveau riche’ and use his status to exploit the community. For that reason he was counted soon after he was born – to teach that education for privileged positions starts from the most tender years.
There are tendencies in certain circles to classify learned and observant Jews on the ‘observant from birth’ – ‘Baal Teshuva’ (a person who came to the Torah way later in life) spectrum. At times this is wicked and explicitly against Torah teachings (c.f. Ez. 18:21-22) – with potentially horrid consequences, especially on the Shidduch (match-making) scene. Indeed the Talmud states explicitly states that no-one can spiritually stand in the place of a sincere person who has genuinely repented and abandoned his previous way of life.
However, it can be argued that however great a Baal Teshuva is – Rabbi Akiva and Resh Lakish being notable examples – he intrinsically missed out on a very important experience – even if though no fault of their own. That was experiencing the Torah way of life as a child, and through the innocent and receptive eyes of a child. He never piped up the Mah-Nishtana, he never held the Havdala candle whilst father intoned the Berachot, he never helped to build the Succah, he never excitedly told his father the D’var Torah he heard on the Parasha at school, he never stood under the Tallit at Kol Ha-Ne-arim on Simchat Torah. He also never gave of his saved up pocket money to tzedaka in the spirit of fulfilling G-d’s will… He may well be a wonderful Rav and teacher, but he still missed out on a crucial Torah imput…
That is the reason that children of the Levites were counted at such a young age. Their function in the Creation – however elevated – had to be natural to them, and part of them. And the education they were to receive was to be directed to the time that they would themselves serve G-d and exemplify Torah teaching in the highest ways possible.
This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
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