The book known in Jewish tradition as Be-Midbar [Sinai] , “In the Wilderness” [of Sinai]” is of course generally known by a very different name, “Numbers”. This reflects the content of the first chapter of the book: instructions from God to Moses to take a census of the Israelite people, tribe by tribe, followed by the results of the census: the number of males aged 20 and over from each tribe except for the tribe of Levi, totalling 603, 550 (Num. 1:46). The purpose of the census was apparently to ascertain how many were able to go forth to war (1:3). The Levites were exempt from the census and the obligation of military service because of their special responsibilities to safeguard the ark of the covenant. They were, according to Rashi following the Midrash, like the king’s bodyguard, separate from the rest of the people.
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.