The Torah in Parashat Bamidbar tells of the special census taken of the tribe of Levi, which included all males from the age of one month – in contrast to the census taken of rest of the nation, which included only the adults (from age twenty and up). Rashi (3:15) explains that it is after one month of life when a newborn is determined to have been a viable fetus at the time of birth, and so the Levite infants were counted from the age of one month. Interestingly, however, Rashi does not simply state that at this age the Levite infants were worthy of being counted, but rather writes that from this age an infant “is counted to be considered a watchman of the sacred guard.”
The phrase used here by Rashi – “shomer mishmeret ha-kodesh” – is taken from a verse later in Sefer Bamidbar (3:38) which refers to the Leviyim as “watchmen of the sacred guard.” The Gemara in Masekhet Tamid (26a) cites this verse as a source of the obligation to station guards from the tribe of Levi around the Beit Ha-mikdash. A number of writers noted that Rashi’s remarks appear to indicate that even young children from the tribe of Levi were qualified to serve in this capacity. Although minors (children below the age of mitzva obligation) are not qualified to serve in the Beit Ha-mikdash, and later (chapter 4) God commands Moshe to count the Leviyim from the age of thirty, stating that Leviyim begin serving at that age, it appears that an exception is made when it comes to the role of guarding the Mikdash. Rashi apparently understood that infants were included in the initial census of the Leviyim because even a child is allowed to serve as a “shomer mishmeret ha-kodesh” – a guard in the Temple. This observation was made by, among others, Rav Aryeh Tzvi Frommer of Kozhiglov, in his Eretz Tzevi.
If so, then Rashi’s comments resolve a difficulty raised by many regarding the first Mishna of Masekhet Tamid, which refers to the kohanim who guarded the Temple as “rovim” – “youngsters.” The mefaresh (the anonymous commentary to Masekhet Tamid) explains that this term is used because the guards were boys who had not yet reached the age of bar-mitzva. Many later commentators wondered how it is possible that minors could fulfill the Biblical command of shemirat ha-mikdash (guarding the Temple). Some have pointed to Rashi’s comments here in Parashat Bamidbar as providing the answer. According to Rashi, it appears, children were included in the census of the tribe of Levi because they were suitable for guarding the Mikdash. Meaning, the Torah itself established this extraordinary measure, allowing youngsters to serve in this capacity, and thus shemirat ha-mikdash is an exceptional instance of a mitzva which can be fulfilled even by youngsters.
How might we explain this extraordinary feature of shemirat ha-mikdash? Why is specifically this mitzva capable of being fulfilled by children?
Perhaps the answer can be found in the famous comments of the Rambam in Hilkhot Beit Ha-bechira (8:1), where he writes that the Torah requires guarding the Beit Ha-mikdash not to protect it, but rather to give glory to God. In the Rambam’s words, “A palace with guards is not the same as a palace without guards.” The guards serve no practical function; all this is needed is their presence, which itself brings honor to the Almighty. In light of the Rambam’s comments, we can perhaps understand why even youngsters are suitable to fill this role. The guards of the Mikdash do not need any skill or training, because simply by being present they serve the purpose of honoring God. God receives honor through anybody who seeks to be His servant, by anybody who is present at the “Mikdash,” anybody who “shows up” with the desire to grow closer to Him. God takes pride, as it were, in all those who serve Him, even if they are “children” – whether literally or figuratively. Of course, not everybody is suitable to fill roles that require particular skills or expertise. But when it comes to giving God honor – this is something we can all do. Even if we are still “children,” with little knowledge or experience, we bring honor to God by being present, by showing genuine interest, by seeking to connect to Him and faithfully serve Him.