It's me, the Rambam. Any idea why I am smiling?
So the final count was in. But one tribe was missing. HaShem had not requested that the tribe of Levi be counted.
But have no fear. HaShem commanded Moshe, “Set aside the tribe of Levi. They are to be dedicated as My special tribe. They will be in charge of the holy Mishkan and they will camp near it. They will also have the honor of transporting the Mishkan. Count them from the age of one month old.”
Indeed, the members of the tribe of Levi were always special. Even the evil, mighty Paraoh recognized this, and believe it or not, he granted the tribe of Levi a slavery exemption!
“All those who belong to the tribe of Levi will not have to do any work for me… let them learn their Torah,” he announced. “I am, after all, a pretty nice guy!”
Also, in the desert, when some Jewish men gave their gold jewelry to make the golden calf, the Levi’im refused.
“Golden Calf?! Forget it!”
“We never served idols and were not about to start now!”
As a reward for their courage and dedication, the Tribe of Levi was given special tasks to perform in the Beis HaMikdash. They were the ones who guarded HaShem’s special home, and during their service, they would sing beautiful songs and play music! The Kohanim had the privilege of bringing up the Korbanos (sacrifices) – which was quite a holy job.
And there’s more!
The Levi’im were also known by a special name, Ligyon HaMelech – “Legion of the King.” This is how our great Rabbis described the tribe of Levi. A “legion” was the ancient Roman word for a large group of several thousand elite soldiers. Sounds like a tribe that excelled in battle. But surprisingly, the tribe of Levi was the only tribe that did not go to battle!
So why give the name Legion of the King,” to the tribe of Levi? They weren’t soldiers!
Indeed, the tribe of Levi were soldiers – spiritual soldiers – guarding the precious Mishkan and all its holy vessels. They were the ones who taught HaShem’s holy Torah. While others soldiers may fight in the physical battles, Hashem’s soldiers teach and inspire.
The great Rambam sums it up in his classic work, called Mishneh Torah:
Why didn’t the Levi’im receive a portion in the inheritance of Eretz Yisrael and in the spoils of war like their brethren?
Because they were set aside to serve HaShem… and to instruct people in His just paths and righteous judgment… Therefore, they were set apart from the ways of the world. They do not wage war like the remainder of the Jewish people, nor do they receive an inheritance… Instead, they are HaShem’s legion… and He provides for them, as the Torah [BaMidbar 18:20] says: “I am your portion and your inheritance.”
Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchos Shemitah, Chapter 13, Halacha 12
Why were the Levi’im to be counted from one month old, yet the rest of Bnei Yisrael were counted from the age of 20 years old?
To answer this, it’s time to go back in history. You see, there was a precedent for counting members of the tribe of Levi at a very young age:
When our forefather Yaakov and his children and grandchildren came down to Egypt, they totaled 70 people… minus one. But an exact number of 70 would have been much better. And just when they reached the border of Egypt – guess what?! Little baby Yocheved was born to Yaakov’s son Levi. Mazal Tov! So she rounded off the number to 70. To commemorate this, HaShem wanted us to count Shevet Levi from the time they were infants.
BTW: Yocheved, a.k.a. Shifrah the midwife, grew up to be the mother of Aharon, Miriam and Moshe.