In parsha Bamidbar, God says to conduct a census of the Twelve Tribes of Israel. Moses counts 603,550 men of draftable age, between 20 and 60 years old. However, the tribe of Levi is counted separately, and with different criteria. All males of the tribe of Levi one month and older are counted, a total of 22,300 Levites.
Why are one-month-old males of the tribe of Levi counted, while men of the other tribes aren’t counted until they are twenty? Recall that the tribe of Levi has a different mission from all the other tribes of Israel. They were not given their own land but instead entrusted with serving the Kohanim (priests) in the Holy Temple, and teaching Torah to the other tribes. Because of this special role, Levites raise their children with complete devotion to Judaism. Members of the other tribes are not counted as part of the community until they have achieved the age of maturity, when they can choose for themselves to follow Jewish law. Levites don’t need to wait that long because it is understood that they will take the right path, having been raised from birth to do so.
Rabbi Jonathan Guttentag teaches that there is a lesson here for all Jews. At a time of rampant assimilation, intermarriage, and societal trends that value physical pleasure and materialism over service to God, many Jewish parents worry that their children won’t choose the path of Torah. The tribe of Levi shows us the way to ensure the next generation’s loyalty to Judaism: it’s never too early to start teaching them to love God and His Holy Book.
Image: “The Numbering of the Israelites,” engraving by Henri Félix Emmanuel Philippoteaux, c. 1890