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In “Bamidbar,” there is a lot of counting (which is why the fourth section of the Torah is called, in English, “Numbers”). However, when it comes to counting the tribe of Levi, all of a sudden the counting is either completely different, or it just isn’t. The verse regarding the Levites (Num. 1:49) reads, “However, do not count the tribe of Levi, and do not raise their profile [lit: their heads] among the children of Israel.” Rashi gives two possible explanations. He says, “It’s fitting for the legions of the King to be counted alone. Another explanation: G-d foresaw the decree that all males over twenty would perish in the desert, and declared, ‘the Levites should not be included in the decree since they are mine because they did take part in the sin of the golden calf.Ҕ

The question which arises here is, why did Rashi find it necessary to give two explanations? At first glance, either one of them would have been sufficient.

The answer lies in the verse itself, which seems to include repetitive language. The verse reads 1) “don’t count the Levites” and then 2) “don’t raise their profile among the Jews.” In order to avoid assuming that they mean the same thing, we have to say that “counting” and “raising the profile” are two different processes, even though both involve numbers. The difference is that “counting” refers to the process of obtaining the census, while “raising the profile” refers to receiving the number that is the sum total of all of the Jews; that is, knowledge of the total population.

We already know, according to Rashi, that the manner of obtaining the census was different for the tribe of Levi than it was for the entire rest of the Jews. The rest of the Jews were counted by the number of “half-shekel” coins which they gave, corresponding to the command in Exodus (parshat Ki Tissa) to give half-shekel coins. This they did in order to avoid counting the Jews themselves, which would have involved the danger which is intrinsic in counting. Instead, they were all commanded to give a half-shekel coin, which were then counted in order to attain the total number of Jews. However, when it came to counting the Levites, it was “according to G-d.” That is, as Rashi explained, “Moshe stood outside each tent and the shechina would precede him and a voice would emerge from the tent saying how many children were present.” Thus, not only was the “profile” (total number) of the tribe of Levi to be separate and not included among the rest of the Jews, but even the way of counting them was different. And that’s why the verse seems to repeat itself, saying, “Do not count the Levites, and do not raise their profile among the rest of the Jews.”

Having established that “counting” and “raising the profile” are two separate items, it is possible to understand the verse in two different ways. If the end of the verse (“don’t raise the profile”) reflects back on the beginning (“don’t count the Levites”) then the verse means that the Levites are to be counted, but that their profile is separate from the rest of the Jews. If, however, we take the two parts of the verse separately, and “don’t count the Levites” means just that, then we are not to count the Levites at all. And then, the end of the verse, which says not to “raise the profile,” means simply that the sum total of the Levites, however it is obtained, is not to be included among the rest of the Jews. But, in any case, they are not to be counted.

Accordingly, we can understand why Rashi brought two different explanations. His first explanation, according to which the Levites are not counted because they are “the legions of the King,” fits with the first analysis of the verse above. That is, we do count the Levites, but with a separate counting including a separate summation of the totals, since they are the “legions of the King.” However, Rashi’s second explanation, according to which the Levites are not among those to be included in the decree of perishing in the desert, implies that they were not counted at all. Counting of any sort brings with it a level of danger, and if the Levites were to escape the impending decree against the rest of the Jews in the desert, then it was preferable not to count them at all. This fits with the second analysis of the verse above, in which “don’t count the Levites” means just that - not to count them at all, even if their sum total becomes known through some other means. And that’s why Rashi brought both explanations, since both fit in with an analysis of the simple meaning of the verse.

It emerges, then that there were three different ways of counting the Jews. One corresponds to all of the Jews except the Levites, and two of them apply to the Levites themselves.
1. The counting took place by everyone donating a half-shekel coin, which were counted in order to obtain the sum total of Jews (except for the Levites).

2. Moshe stood outside of the tents of the Levites and a “bat-kol” (divine voice) emerged, informing the number of Levites who were present in every tent.

3. No counting whatsoever took place, even though the sum total became known.

The three types of counting correspond to three styles, or paths of serving G-d. Most Jews serve G-d by way of their actions, by doing good deeds and performing mitzvoth, following His commands in order to get close to Him. Of course, they also pray and make fixed times for learning Torah, but their emphasis is upon action. They correspond to the majority of Jews of all of the tribes, who were counted by their donation of the half-shekels. There are a certain number of mitzvoth – 613 – which have limitations and rules in time and space, and therefore correspond to the natural rules and limitations of counting.

Then there are those who choose to dedicate their lives to Torah, to both studying it themselves and teaching it to others. They correspond to those who were counted by super-natural means, such as Moshe when he stood outside the tents of the Levites. Torah itself has the quality of coming from Above and yet it relates to the universe and people below. Those who dedicate themselves to study and teaching also display both qualities of being connected Above and yet influencing their environment. They manage to bring the unlimited world of Torah from above to connect with the Jews below. They are counted, and yet not counted. They are within the realm of numbers, and yet they aren’t counted by natural means, but “by G-d,” just like the Levites.

And then there are those who seek only to cleave their souls to the One above through prayer. They have no wish to influence their physical surroundings, but only to connect their soul above, and so they dedicate themselves entirely to prayer and meditation. They also perform mitzvoth and learn Torah, but their emphasis is upon prayer, with great self-sacrifice. They, like the high priest, are not counted at all, since all their emphasis is upon nullifying themselves and cleaving to G-d. They correspond to Aharon, the high priest, who was “not counted among the Levites” (Rashi in our parsha, 1:4).

The three styles of worship described above also correspond to the three categories of Jews: Yisrael (the majority of whom dedicate their lives to performance of deeds – mitzvoth), Levi (those who dedicate themselves to learning and teaching Torah), and the Cohen Gadol, or high priest (who is totally dedicated to G-d, so much so that he doesn’t leave the temple).
And that brings us full circle to Rashi’s two explanations. Rashi’s first explanation, that the Levites weren’t counted because they are the “legions of the King,” corresponds to the quality of the Levites in Torah, in which they are counted, but not among the rest of the Jews. And Rashi’s second explanation, according to which the Levites weren’t counted at all, corresponds to the Cohen gadol, the high priest, who wasn’t counted at all, even among the Levites, since he wasn’t in the category of “numbers.” His dedication and cleaving to G-d was on such a level of self-nullification that he wasn’t even counted.

Therefore, it’s appropriate that parshat Bamidbar this year falls out before the festival of Shavuot, while we are still in the process of counting the “omer.” The Torah commands us to “count fifty days,” and yet we only count forty-nine days, and celebrate Shavuot (on which the Torah is given) on the fiftieth night, without counting. This is because the forty-nine days of counting the omer correspond to the forty-nine “gates of understanding” which we can attain on our own. The fiftieth comes of its own, after we have done whatever we are capable of doing. Like counting the Levites, when Moshe stood outside of the tent and the count emerged on its own, so we do our part and the fiftieth gate becomes counted automatically. Thus in one sense, the chag of Shavuot corresponds to the service of the Levites.

And yet in another sense, Shavuot corresponds to the service of the Cohen gadol, the high priest. It is known that not everything that is associated with the fiftieth gate of understanding is connected with our “avoda,” with our effort and service. Some of it, the highest aspects of it, are simply a gift from Above. Part of this G-dly revelation comes automatically as a result of our avoda, but the highest aspects come simply because G-d wants to give it to us out of love, like parents who wish to give to their children out of love. And this corresponds to the Torah, which is given to us on Shavuot, as a gift from Above.

Thus, the three aspects of counting apply to the omer as well; there is the straightforward counting of forty-nine days that applies to all Jews, there is the drawing down of the fiftieth gate of understanding as a result of our counting (therefore it’s in the category of counting, but infinite since it’s coming from Above), and there is the aspect of the fiftieth gate that comes as a gift and isn’t in the category of counting (our effort) at all. And it is the highest and most essential aspect of the holiday of Shavuot, which comes to reveal the “yechida,” or highest aspect of every Jew’s connection with G-d.

From Likutei Sichot of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, volume 32, pp. 1-9 Rabbi David Sterne, Jerusalem Connection in the Old City of Jerusalem