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Parashat Bemidbar: how each individual counts
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Monday 18th May 2015

‘And Moses counted them, according to the instruction of G-d, as he was commanded’ (Bamidbar 3,16) 

This counting, one of several in the Sidra, is of the Levi’im (Levites) who replaced the firstborn as the workers in the Mishkan (desert Temple).  It was administered by Moses.  This was an enormous job, albeit one which allowed him to meet the people.  Rashi, the premier Torah commentator, writes that Moses asked G-d for guidance on how to undertake this vast task, especially as it would be uncomfortable on occasion for him to enter family tents and count the family members.  G-d told Moses that if he played his part, He would look after the rest.  Moses stood outside each tent and a heavenly voice told him how many people were inside.   This also provides an alternative explanation of the Hebrew phrase ‘al pi HaShem’ which was translated above as according to the instruction of G-d. 

Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, a leading 20th century figure, points out that this command was issued to Moses alone.  Unlike some of his other tasks, he could not rely on the testimony of others.  The Torah permits use of witness evidence in court cases, but not in matters when an individual needs to find out the information for him or herself.  Thus, when faced with the problem of how to verify the numbers in each family, Moses needed a heavenly voice to assist him. 

The Levi’im played a crucial role in the religious life of the Jewish people.  In addition to their work in the Temple they also taught.  Even as children they were permitted to sing in the Levi’im’s choir in the Temple.  Perhaps it was necessary for Moses to know them all individually, and for Moses to count them personally to show the great seriousness of their work.  Such individual attention and a direct command from G-d to do it demonstrated how the Levi’im were to perform highly specialised holy work and overrode the normal restrictions on conducting a census.

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