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 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 surveyedlevi'im from one month old and up. Onlylevi'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.
The Biggest Shul in the World
"And the voice of the shofar grew stronger and stronger..." (Shemot 19:19)
An early memory of mine is standing in shul right at the end of Yom Kippur and having the following fantasy: The person blowing the shofar takes a deep breath and starts to sound the tekia gedola, the "great tekia." Stretching his lungs and the length of the shofar blast to the limit, the sound grows louder and louder. Ten seconds pass. Then twenty. Then thirty. The shofar gets louder and louder. A full minute passes. The sound of the shofar is almost deafening. After two full minutes, everyone in the shul realizes that the person playing the shofar is no longer playing the shofar. The shofar is playing him. Louder and louder and louder. The shul starts to vibrate. The dust of ages falls on the bima from the chandelier swaying above. The shofar is now playing the shul. The sound has spread outside and cars start to vibrate. The pavement starts to vibrate. The houses, the trees, the earth, the sky, everything is vibrating in sympathy. Everything is sounding this one long tekia gedola. Everything in creation is sounding, "Hashem Echad."
The Rambam (Maimonides) says that one should not speculate about the coming of the Mashiach, for no one knows exactly how it will be, until it will be. But if one is allowed a little daydream, this is mine. I had a similar moment of reverie at the Seder this year. Even though the only person who was allowed out onto the streets during the lockdown was Eliyahu HaNavi (Elijah the Prophet), we all went out onto our balconies or stood by our open windows and sung together: “Ma Nishtanah…Why is this night different?”
Well, this year the answer to that question was a bit of a no-brainer. But, for those few moments I felt, and I’m sure many people felt the same, that the Seder united us all as the Family of Yisrael in a way that no other Seder had ever done. And it didn’t stop there. Even during the worst times in the Warsaw ghetto, the shuls and the synagogues never closed. Here we were, with the almost unthinkable situation of no communal prayer. But, in a way, the streets and the courtyards of Jerusalem became the Batei Knesset; they became the synagogues. As I stood on my porch, I could hear Kaddish coming from this direction, birkat Kohanim — the Priestly Blessing — from the other direction, and Kedusha — the praise of Hashem that angels utter — coming from a third direction. The shuls hadn’t closed. They had just gotten bigger.
"And the voice of the shofar grew stronger and stronger..." (Shemot 19:19). There has been much talk that this Corona pandemic presages the coming of Mashiach. I think there may be a mistake here. One of the thirteen principles of a believing Jew is that “Every day I will await him (the Mashiach).” But maybe, if one is allowed to dream a little, on this Shavuot we will hear the great shofar proclaiming from every rooftop and every street and every heart: “Hashem Echad!” “G-d is One!”