The Book of Bamidbar — "In the desert" — begins with G-d 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 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 three main families, 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.
“And they came to the desert of Sinai” (1:1)
The Shabbat before Shavuot contains a special power to prepare us for that momentous day.
Shabbat was given to the Jewish People before the Torah was given at Sinai and is a preparation for its acceptance, as it says, “And the people rested on the seventh day” (Shemot 16:30). From there they journeyed immediately to Mount Sinai. It was the power of that Shabbat that propelled them towards Sinai.
At Sinai itself the Torah tells us, “And Yisrael encamped opposite the Mount.” That encampment was like one man with one heart. What was the power that unified the Jewish People thus?
A desert represents the nullification of everything; nothing exists in the desert – except the opportunity to serve G-d.
Each Shabbat there exists in each Jew this same “desert space” when we desist from all halachic creative endeavor. By doing this we make ourselves like a desert — empty of all distractions and united in our service of G-d.
So just as the desert is a preparation in space for receiving the Torah, so Shabbat is like a desert in time that prepares us for receiving the Torah.
In the Pesach Haggada we say, “And He gave us the Shabbat” and only then do we say “and He brought us close to Mount Sinai.” We see from this that Shabbat is the preparation that brings us to Mount Sinai.
It is also for this reason that Brit Mila takes place on the eighth day after birth — so that the baby may ‘travel’ through Shabbat before entering the covenant of Mila, for it was at Sinai that we all entered together the covenant when we said as one, “We will do and we will hear.”
- Sources: Based on Sfat Emet