We read in Parashat Bamidbar of the census taken of Benei Yisrael at Mount Sinai, which included all males aged twenty and above. The tribe of Levi, we read, was counted separately, and this tribe’s census included all males from the age of one month. Rashi (3:15) explains that until an infant completes one month of life, it is uncertain whether it was a viable fetus, and so it was from the age of one month that the Levite infants were worthy of being counted. Fundamentally, then, the census included all males of Levi, even newborns, the only condition being that they completed one month of life and were thus determined to have been properly developed at the time of their birth.
Rashi then proceeds to cite the Midrash Tanchuma as commenting about the Leviyim, “This tribe was accustomed to being counted from the womb.” The Midrash notes the famous tradition that Moshe’s mother, Yokheved, who was the daughter of Levi – the founder of the Levite tribe – was born just as Yaakov and his family crossed the border from Canaan to Egypt – and she was counted among the seventy members of the family who moved to Egypt. The Midrash views Yokheved’s inclusion in this list, of the original seventy people who relocated in Egypt, as setting a precedent of Levite infants being included when the tribe is counted. According to the Midrash, this is a significant characteristic of the tribe of Levi, the tribe chosen to serve in the Mishkan – that its members are counted not only upon reaching adulthood, but already during infancy.
Some writers explained the Midrash as emphasizing the importance of early education in preparing a child for a life of religious devotion. The tribe of Levi, which represents religious excellence, was the tribe whose members were counted already in infancy – to show that children must be taught and trained to serve God already in their younger years.
Others, however, explained differently. The census of the other tribes included only the adults because it is only at adulthood when one’s unique strengths, talents and preferences are discernible, and when a person begins charting his course in life. And so when Benei Yisrael was counted before departing from Sinai, for the purpose – according to several commentators – of preparing for warfare in Eretz Yisrael, the census counted only those old enough to be assigned a role appropriate for their individual characteristics and skills. The members of the tribe of Levi, however, were designated from birth for the service in the Mishkan. Immediately upon being born, a child born in this tribe was destined to serve in the Mishkan, in one of the several capacities filled by the Leviyim. Therefore, they were counted already from the age of one month, because already at that point, their role was, for the most part, determined.
If so, then the two censuses taken of Benei Yisrael shows us that there are some roles we are given at birth, and some which we assume only once we reach adulthood and chart our individual course. On the one hand, we are born with a wide range of opportunities for us to choose from, with many different roles that are open for us to assume, according to our personal preferences. At the same time, however, like the Leviyim, there are certain responsibilities which we bear by virtue of the specific conditions into which we are born. Every individual’s possibilities are limited, to one extent or another, by circumstance. Many aspects of our life are for us to determine through our decisions, but some are dictated by conditions beyond our control. Like the other tribes, we are able to chart our course; but like the tribe of Levi, we are born into a reality with certain limits to which we are confined. Our challenge is to maximize our full potential within the limits set for us – without, one the one hand, overlooking any of the vast opportunities that are presented to us, but also, on the other hand, without trying in vain to extend beyond the limits set by our conditions and circumstances.