“They shall take charge of all the furnishings of the Tabernacle, a duty on behalf of the Israelites, doing the work of the Tabernacle” (Numbers 3:8)
Parashat Bamidbar (in the desert), like Exodus, opens with a list of names. In Exodus it is Jacob’s twelve children, who become the Israelite tribes. In Bamidbar, two leaders from each of those tribes are designated to conduct a census. This counting (or numbering, which is why the English name for Bamidbar is Numbers) is necessary because the Israelites’ journey through the desert is dangerous and they must be mustered into a military camp. After each tribe is counted, Bamidbar describes where it is to position itself around the Mishkan, or Tabernacle.
One tribe, though, is not included in this muster: the Levites. They are exempt from the general responsibilities of the other tribes and are assigned two specific duties: breaking down, transporting, and reassembling the Mishkan, and defending it against encroachment. The Levites are positioned between the perimeter defense of the other eleven tribes and the Mishkan.
Most ancient temples have elaborate statuary guarding the entrance to ward off demons. But demons were not a concern for ancient Israel;their world had been abolished with the revelation at Mt. Sinai, and God could more than take care of them anyway. The Levites were on guard against humans, whose individual sins could disturb the Mishkan’s sanctity, and anger God to the point of destroying the entire people. This is why the Levites dominate the entire book of Bamidbar: the sanctity of the Mishkan is the key to the Israelite’s survival in the desert because that is where God’s presence resides among the people. And the danger was not some vague bogeyman, “out there” somewhere; it was us.
Good Shabbos/Shabbat Shalom,
Dr. David Ackerman is the Director of JCC Association’s Mandel Center for Jewish Education.