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.
Stand Up and Be Counted!
“But you shall not count the tribe of Levi…” (1:49)
The Midrash comments: “And the Levi’im will be to Me” — the Levi’im are Mine, for all those who come close to Me, to Me I will bring them close, and they brought themselves close to Me. (Bamidbar Rabbah)
Sometimes it’s not enough to just stay in the background and keep out of harm’s way. Sometimes you have to stand up and be counted.
Sometimes a person sees a flagrant desecration of G-d’s Name, when errant ideas are purveyed as “Judaism”, such as when “reformers would emasculate” and try to change the Law of the Torah or the spirit of the Torah. It’s not enough just to ignore them and turn the other way. A Jew has to stand up and be counted.
The tribe of Levi was exalted amongst the Jewish People because they were not involved in the sin of the Golden Calf. However, certainly there were many individuals who also refused to be drawn into idol worship. Why, then, weren’t they rewarded in the same way as the tribe of Levi, to be appointed “over the Tabernacle of Testimony, over all its utensils and everything that belongs to it?” (1:50)
When Moshe came down from the mountain and saw the B’nei Yisrael cavorting around the Golden Calf, he shouted, “Who is for Gd — to me!” (Shemot 33:26). It was only the Tribe of Levi who answered the call as one man. It was only the Tribe of Levi who “brought themselves close” by standing together with Moshe.
Sometimes you have to stand up and be counted.
Source: Based on the Chiddushei HaRim