The Torah in Parashat Bamidbar tells about the census which God commanded Moshe and Aharon to conduct at Mount Sinai, whereby the males of Benei Yisrael were counted from age twenty and above. The Leviyim, however, as we noted earlier this week, were counted already as infants, from the age of one month.
Rav Avraham Borenstein of Sochatchov, the Avnei Neizer, is cited by his son, the Sheim Mi-Shmuel, as offering an explanation for the significance of the Leviyim’s being counted already as infants. At the time when the Torah was given, Benei Yisrael proclaimed their unconditional commitment to God’s laws even before hearing what they entailed, announcing, “Na’aseh ve-nishma” – “We will perform, and we will hear” (Shemot 24:7). The Avnei Neizer views this event as reflecting the level whereby the people were naturally and instinctively drawn to Torah observance without the need for intellectual engagement. Benei Yisrael at that time developed an intuitive drive to fulfill the divine will, without having to engage their rational faculties. Overcome by awe and having achieved complete faith, they did not need to think or rationalize; they immediately proclaimed their unconditional devotion to God, without any hesitation or consideration. Unfortunately, the Avnei Neizer continued, Benei Yisrael fell from this level forty days later, when they worshipped the golden calf. Only the tribe of Levi, which did not participate in the worship of the calf, retained this lofty stature, the intuitive, instinctive drive to unconditionally serve the Almighty. And for this reason, the Avnei Neizer explained, most of the nation was counted only from age twenty, but the Leviyim were counted from the age of one month. The rest of the nation was counted from adulthood, from the age at which one’s rational faculties are fully developed. (The Avnei Neizer referenced in this context the Gemara’s ruling in Masekhet Gittin (65a) that one who inherits real estate is legally empowered to sell it only from the age of twenty, as at a younger age he is prone to make a rash transaction – indicating that one is considered to have achieved full rational development at the age of twenty.) The Leviyim, however, who retained their instinctive commitment to God which does not depend on reason, were counted already as infants. They could be counted among the legions of God even before their intellectual development, because their commitment to God’s service was ingrained in their essence and did not require the engagement of their rational faculties.
The Avnei Neizer’s comments regarding the significance of the “na’aseh ve-nishma” proclamation resemble the approach developed by Rav Soloveitchik in one of his published addresses (“Mt. Sinai – Their Finest Hour,” in Rav Avraham Besdin’s Reflections of the Rav, chapter 8). Rav Soloveitchik explains the people’s pronouncement as a reflection of their “ratzon elyon” (“higher will”), the dimension of human will which, in the Rav’s words, “makes decisions without consulting the intellect.” This layer is “in the center of the spiritual personality and constitutes man’s real identity.” The “ratzon elyon” stands in contrast to man’s lower will, what the Rav terms his “pragmatic intellect, which weighs pros and cons,” and is “of subordinate stature in man’s personality.”
On the basis of this concept, Rav Soloveitchik explains the meaning of “na’aseh ve-nishma”:
When God offered the Torah at Mt. Sinai, the Israelites did not ask for a sample, to witness a demonstration, or to accept the Torah for a thirty-day trial period. This would have been the calculated, practical thing to do… The Jewish response was…“we have decided to commit ourselves and, after that, to understand intellectually.” The decision was a leap of faith by the ratzon elyon, an intuitive sense of what was valid and imperative. The inner soul of man is capable of such bold visions, to transcend mundane considerations in an heroic embrace of what is or must be.
According to the Avnei Neizer, this “ratzon elyon” which was manifest at the time of Matan Torah is reflected by the census, which included even the infants of Levi, the only tribe that preserved what Rav Soloveitchik would later call “this intuitive sense of what was valid and imperative.” The tribe of Levi represented the ideal of instinctive commitment, a level of devotion that does not require any intellectual process, but is rather innate and reflexive. This is an ideal standard which we may not be able to actually achieve, but towards which we can and must strive, working to make our commitment to God’s laws part of our very essence and of the fabric of our beings.