SALT - Wednesday, 26 Iyar 5780 - May 20, 2020

  • Rav David Silverberg
            We read in Parashat Bamidbar of the separate census that was conducted for the tribe of Levi, after all the other tribes had been counted.  Levi’s census differed from that of the other tribes in that the census of the other tribes counted only the males from age 20, whereas the Leviyim were counted already from the age of one month (3:15). 
            Rashi (3:16) writes that the inclusion of young infants in Levi’s census explains why the Torah describes Moshe as counting this tribe “al pi Hashem” – “by the word of God,” a phrase which does not appear in the context of the counting of the other tribes.  Citing from the Midrash Tanchuma, Rashi relates that after hearing God’s command to count the Leviyim from the age of one month, Moshe found himself in a quandary.  He turned to God and asked, “How will I go into all of their homes and tents to know the number of their suckling babies?”  Moshe found it inconceivable that God expected him to enter people’s homes to count the infants.  God replied to Moshe, “You do yours, and I will do Mine.”  Meaning, as Rashi proceeds to explain, Moshe went to the front door of every Levite tent, and a heavenly voice announced to him to number of people in the household.  This way, Moshe was able to count even the infants of Levi without invading the Levites’ privacy by entering their homes.  And thus the Torah says that Moshe counted the tribe of Levi “al pi Hashem” – as God informed him the number of infants in each Levite family.
            What might be the significance of this depiction of the counting of the Leviyim?
            Often, people who are in a position to offer assistance to those in need lack the information they need in order to help.  Educators, for example, might be unaware of their students’ personal hardships and struggles, and are thus incapable of helping and guiding the students.  Obtaining this information will, in many instances, necessitate intruding on the students’ privacy.  The Midrash here perhaps teaches of the need to go as far as we can to find out about other people for the sake of helping them, without going into their “tents.”  Just as Moshe went to the Leviyim’s tents without entering, we, too, should take interest in others while ensuring to maintain appropriate boundaries and respect their privacy.  We are not entitled to meddle in other people’s affairs, even if our intentions are sincere – just as Moshe could not imagine entering the Leviyim’s homes, even for the important purpose of counting them.  However, at the same time, we should go as far as we can to find out about other people and their needs so that we will be able to offer whatever support and assistance that they require.  A delicate balance must be maintained between respecting people’s privacy, on the one hand, and being attuned to their needs, on the other, so we can intervene in a useful and helpful way without inappropriately intruding upon people’s private space.