The Book of Bamidbar — "In the desert" — begins with Hashem commanding Moshe to take a census of all men over age twenty — old enough for service. The count reveals just over 600,000. The levi'im are counted separately later on because their service will be unique. They will be responsible for transporting the Mishkan and its furnishings, and assembling them when the nation encamps. The 12 Tribes of Israel, each with its banner, are arranged around the Mishkan in four sections: east, south, west and north. Since Levi is singled out, the tribe of Yosef is split into two tribes, Efraim and Menashe, so there will be four groups of three. When the nation travels, they march in a formation similar to the way they camp.
A formal transfer is made between the first-born and the levi'im, whereby the levi'im take over the role the first-born would have had serving in the Mishkan if not for the sin of the golden calf. The transfer is made using all the 22,000 surveyed levi'im from one month old and up. Only levi'im between 30 and 50 will work in the Mishkan. The remaining first-born sons are redeemed with silver, similar to the way we redeem our first-born today. The sons of Levi are divided into the three main families of Gershon, Kehat and Merari (besides the kohanim — the special division from Kehat's family). The family of Kehat carried the Menorah, the Table, the Altar and the Holy Ark. Because of their utmost sanctity, the Ark and the Altar are covered only by Aharon and his sons, before the levi'im prepare them for travel.
You Are Not Everybody Else
“In the desert” (1:1)
It is the late 1800’s.
A simple farmer is tilling his field and then he hits the motherlode. Gold! And a lot of it.
A wealthy financier in the big city offers him a fortune for his field. The financier sends him a nice advance and asks to meet him at his office where they will close the deal. The big city is a two-week trip by horse from his village. But he’s heard of this newfangled invention called the train.
He goes to the central train station to buy a ticket. The lady behind the ticket counter asks him what type of ticket he wants: first, second or third class. She sees he’s not too sure, so she says, “Third class tickets get you a place on the train but nothing more. You may also have to stand for the entire trip. Second class guarantees a seat, but it costs more.” Giving him a quick once over, she figures that there’s no point in describing first class.
“And first class?” he inquires indignantly. Rolling her eyes, she explains the luxuries of first class travel. She concludes, “It’s only for the very, very wealthy.” Sensing her condescension, he juts out his chin and tells her, “First class for me!” and pays the exorbitant price.
The farmer heads for the platform as the train pulls into the station. It’s still early and most people haven’t arrived yet, but he notices some passengers boarding the very last car on the train. Not wanting to stick out, he follows them in. He sees them looking around furtively and then squeezing beneath the benches, so he does the same. He gets into a cozy position and in no time falls asleep.
The next thing he knows, he is being woken by a furious man who is kicking him and pulling him out from under the bench. Startled and disoriented, he stumbles to his feet and confronts his attacker. “Who are you?” The man smirks, grabs his shirt, and speaks right into his face. “I am the conductor. That’s who. And you, lowlife, are trying to hitch a free ride.” “No, I’m not! I paid top dollar for this first class seat!” he responds, which elicits peals of laughter from the other passengers, who are relishing the free entertainment.
He starts fishing around in his pockets, and, to their utter surprise, pulls out, just as he said, a first class ticket. The conductor studies the ticket, realizes it is authentic, and then, speaking in the hushed tones reserved for the very wealthy, asks the farmer, “Sir. You have a first class ticket. Why were you under the bench?” The farmer’s face flushes in embarrassment, “But that’s what everybody else was doing?” To which the conductor tells him, “Sir, you are not everybody else.”
In the Book of Devarim, the Torah is described as “a great sound that does not cease” (5:19). The Torah was given in a desert, and does not cease to be given in the desert. There are many kinds of desert. There are physical deserts and there are moral and spiritual deserts. We are living in a type of desert where the self-evident axioms of morality and decency are under constant and overwhelming onslaught. Our only salvation is to remember that “we are not everyone else.” We are members of the greatest family in the world – the Jewish People.
We have a first class ticket that takes us where nobody else can go.
*Sources: Based on a story in Positive Vision by Rabbi Avrohom Neuberger