This week we begin the book of Numbers. Actually, the first portion, Bamidbar, begins with a discussion of numbers. Moshe was told to count the Jewish nation. “Take a census of the entire assembly of the Children of Israel according to their families, according to their fathers’ household, by number of the names, every male according to their head count. From twenty years of age and up — everyone who goes out to the legion in Israel — you shall count them according to their legions, you and Aaron.” (Numbers 1:2-3). This count included every tribe except that of Levi. They were reserved for a separate count. And their count was not of men ages twenty and up. It began with a much younger crew. “Hashem spoke to Moses in the Wilderness of Sinai, saying. “Count the sons of Levi according to their fathers’ household, according to their families, every male from one month of age and up shall you count them” (Numbers 3:14-15).
The question is obvious. Why did the infants, one month and above, get counted? Why were the tiny babies included the count? Why were the infant Levites counted and not the infants of the other tribes? The Torah also differentiates between this Levite count and the rest of the nation. “The leader of the Levite leaders was Elazar, the son of Aaron the Kohen, the assignment of the guardians of the charge of the sanctity” (ibid v. 32). This was not a count for legions. It was a count to assign the guardians in charge of sanctity. Does that start at thirty-days-old? Not long after my father, Rabbi Benjamin Kamenetzky, founded the Yeshiva of South Shore, back in the late 1950s, he invited his illustrious father Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetzky, of blessed memory, to visit the school. After an impressive tour, in which he interviewed teachers and tested the students of the fledgling institution, my father showed him the pre-school program, which imbued the youngest children with a love for Judaism. On the portal of the classroom, there was a colorful mezuzah. Normally a mezuzah is supposed to be placed at the bottom of the top third of the doorpost. This one was not. It was placed lower – at the bottom third of the doorpost. The teachers explained to both my father and grandfather the reasoning for the downward adjustment. “This way, the children will be able to reach the mezuzah, and kiss it.” My grandfather smiled. “We must not lower the mezuzah, for the children to kiss it. Instead, we must raise the child, to reach the mezuzah at its proper level. What we must do is put a stepstool in order for the children to reach higher — to the proper level of the mezuzah! Raise the child at an early age to reach the height of the mitzvah, instead of lowering the mitzvah to the child!”
The difference between the counting of the Levites and the rest of the nation is very clear. The nation was, as a whole, counted “according to their legions,” the Levites were counted for their job of ” guardians of the charge of the sanctity.” Though legions are counted at a fighting age, our children, guardians of the sanctity of our nation, must be counted as early as possible. The tribe of Levi represents our leadership. “Today,” says Maimonides, “everyone who accepts Torah leadership is considered an integral member of tribe of Levi!” For that mission, no child is too young! Charged with the mission of guarding the sanctuary and preserving the spirituality of the nation, we must lift the heads of our children, imbuing them with finite goals and responsibilities, from their very first moments of cognizance. We must raise them to the greatest height of spirituality at the earliest age. Even if we need a stepstool!
Dedicated to the speedy healing of Hinda bas Gittel, Mrs. Henrietta Milstein
Copyright © 1997 by Rabbi M. Kamenetzky and Project Genesis, Inc.
The author is the Associate Dean of the Yeshiva of South Shore.