The Leviim according to their fathers’ tribe were not counted among them. Hashem spoke to Moshe, saying: However, you shall not count the tribe of Levi, and you shall not take up their number among the Bnei Yisrael.
Pretty straightforward, right? Now read the pesukim again, slowly. Hashem tells Moshe not to count the Leviim. But the Torah already stated that Moshe had refrained from counting them, even before Hashem told him anything! So what was he told that he didn’t already know? What is the difference between counting and taking up their number? There must be a difference, because otherwise, the second phrase would not have been included. What does “according to their fathers’ tribe” add? Would it not have sufficed to simply call them “Leviim” and leave it at that?
Rashi always help us through the text. Sometimes, he helps us even more than what we were looking for when we turned to him. Like here.
Rashi offers two explanation for the command to Moshe. “The King’s legion is worthy to be counted by itself. Alternatively, HKBH foresaw that a decree would be issued in the future upon all who where counted (from age 20 and up), that they would perish in the wilderness. He said, ‘These Leviim should not be included in that group, for they are Mine, since they did not go astray with the Golden Calf.’”
These explanations might be the basis for understanding the subtleties in our pesukim. Moshe did not count the Leviim, even before Hashem instructed him. He perhaps thought on his own of a variation of the second explanation that Rashi offers. He did not think of the edict that people would die in the wilderness – that had not yet come into being. He did, however, think that the Leviim were entitled to special distinction because they had all remained loyal to Hashem and did not stumble at the Eigel. For this reason alone, he balked at counting them among the rest of the people. This is why the Torah mentions “according to their fathers’ tribe” – Moshe meant to attach special prominence to the entire tribe of Levi because of their performance in the Eigel incident.
Hashem tells Moshe that he was correct in not counting the Leviim – but not for his reason. The compelling reason to keep them separate is not related to the Eigel, but to their role as the King’s legion. Moshe’s reasoning suggested that the Leviim possessed some special talent or depth of thought. Since they had behaved so markedly differently than everyone else, they probably shared some special quality that others did not. That might be reason enough to place them on a a pedestal, and to honor them above the rest of the nation.
Hashem told Moshe that this was not true. They were not smarter or intrinsically holier than the rest of the people. They were entitled to special treatment as a group – as a mateh / tribe – because of their special avodah, their service of Hashem. In other words, the key factor is mateh – their group designation – but this does not imply some special capability inherited from their fathers. Therefore the pasuk that tells us about Moshe’s unilateral decision makes mention of “fathers,” but Hashem’s instructions makes no mention of them.
Hashem’s command is further buttressed by warning “you shall not take up their number.” The phrase means that he should not include them in a national census. Literally, however, it connotes raising up. In other words, Moshe is told not to raise them up, not to honor them, for some supposed gift or talent that the rest of the people are ought to recognize and extol. They should not be elevated over the rest of the people, and honored for some presumed distinction within them. Indeed, they should be treated differently – but only because they are the King’s legion, and the honor due them comes directly from Hashem. It is His honor that they bear, and not their own.