In this week's parsha we learn about the special role of the Leviim, who served as the caretakers of the Mishkan and the assistants of the Kohanim in their service. The unique status of the Leviim was emphasized by the separate census that was taken of their Tribe alone. The rest of the Jewish people were counted and grouped together as one, while the Tribe of Levi was counted and grouped together as a community unto itself.
Hashem explained to Moshe the reason for this distinction:
וַיְדַבֵּר ה' אֶל מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹר: וַאֲנִי הִנֵּה לָקַחְתִּי אֶת הַלְוִיִּם מִתּוֹךְ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל תַּחַת כָּל בְּכוֹר פֶּטֶר רֶחֶם מִבְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְהָיוּ לִי הַלְוִיִּם.
Hashem spoke to Moshe and said, "I have taken the Leviim from among Bnei Yisrael in place of every first-born from his mother among Bnei Yisrael. The Leviim shall be Mine."
The Midrash comments on this as follows:
למה לא נמנו עם ישראל אלא שבטו של לוי? פלטינין היו. משל למלך שיש לו לגיונות הרבה ואומר לפרופסיטוט לך מנה את הלגיונות חוץ מן הלגיון העומד לפני. לפיכך אמר לו הקדוש ברוך הוא למשה "אך את מטה לוי וגו'". בתוך בני ישראל אין אתה מונה אותן אבל לעצמן מנה אותן שאין שבחו של מלך שימנה לגיונו עם הלגיונות. לפיכך נמנו ישראל לעצמן ושבט לוי לעצמן.
Why was the Tribe of Levi not counted together with the rest of the Jewish people? They are the members of Hashem's own household, the children of His palace. This can be compared to a king who had many legions of soldiers and commanded his supervisor to count them all, with the exception of the legion appointed to stand before the king.
So too, Moshe was told not to count the Leviim with the rest of Bnei Yisrael, but to count them separately. It is not fitting for the honor of the king that his special, private legion be counted with the rest. Therefore, the Tribe of Levi was counted separately.
The Midrash Tanchuma states that the special role of Levi was foreseen by Yaakov Avinu, who dedicated Levi to Hashem as a tithe of his sons:
א"ר הונא אבות הראשונים הפרישו תרומות ומעשרות ... יעקב הפריש מעשר ראשון שנאמר "וכל אשר תתן לי עשר אעשרנו לך". כותי אחד בא ושאל את ר' מאיר אמר ליה לית אתון אמרין לי דהדין יעקב אבוכון קשוט הוא? אמר ליה אין דכתיב "תתן אמת ליעקב חסד לאברהם." אמר ליה הפריש שבטו של לוי אחד מעשרה שבטים לא היה להפריש לו עוד שנים? אמר ליה רבי מאיר את אמרת דאינון תרי עשר ואנא אמר דאינון ארבע עשרה דכתיב "אפרים ומנשה כראובן ושמעון יהיו לי." אמר ליה והא את מסייע לי הוספת קמח הוסיף מים. אמר ליה אין את מודה לי דאינון ארבע אמהות שהיו להם ד' בכורות ואין הבכור מתעשר למה שהוא קדש ואין קדש מוציא קדש. אמר ליה טובי אומתך דאת בגוה.
Rav Huna taught: The Avos separated terumah and maaser tithes … as Yaakov said, "Everything that You give me I shall tithe for You."
A Kusi once asked R' Meir, "Do you not claim that Yaakov your forefather was an honest person?"
"Certainly so," said R' Meir, "as it is written, 'You gave truthfulness to Yaakov and kindness to Avraham.'"
"If so, why did he separate only one son, Levi, as a tithe for Hashem? He had twelve sons, and therefore owed Hashem another two (tenths)."
"You claim that he had only twelve sons, but in fact he had fourteen, as it is written, 'Ephraim and Menasheh shall be to me like Reuven and Shimon,'" said R' Meir.
"This only supports my question," said the Kusi. "You have added flour, now add water!"
"But you must admit that four of his sons were firstborn to their mothers. The firstborn is not included in the calculation of (animal) tithes, since he is already born sanctified. One sanctified thing cannot be sanctified again and set aside as a tithe. (Thus, ten sons remained, from which Levi was the tithe)," said R' Meir.
"How fortunate is the nation that you are in their midst," said the Kusi, and conceded to his claim.
Yaakov, the greatest of our Forefathers, tithed both his produce and his children. When terumos and maasros are separated from a yield of produce, the remaining yield is elevated from a status of forbidden tevel to permitted chulin, making it fit to be eaten. So too, when the Tribe of Levi was separated from the rest of Klal Yisrael to be wholly committed to Hashem's service, the rest of Klal Yisrael was thereby elevated, making us fit to serve Hashem as His מַמְלֶכֶת כֹּהֲנִים וְגוֹי קָדוֹשׁ - "nation of priests and holy people."
The Role of the Firstborn
Levi was separated and distinguished from the other Tribes by Yaakov Avinu. However, this was only in potential. In practice, the Tribe of Levi did not begin their special role as the caretakers of the Mishkan until this role was forfeited by the firstborn, as the verse states:
וַיְדַבֵּר ה' אֶל מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹר. וַאֲנִי הִנֵּה לָקַחְתִּי אֶת הַלְוִיִּם מִתּוֹךְ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל תַּחַת כָּל בְּכוֹר פֶּטֶר רֶחֶם מִבְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְהָיוּ לִי הַלְוִיִּם. כִּי לִי כָּל בְּכוֹר בְּיוֹם הַכֹּתִי כָל בְּכוֹר בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם הִקְדַּשְׁתִּי לִי כָל בְּכוֹר בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל מֵאָדָם עַד בְּהֵמָה לִי יִהְיוּ אֲנִי ה'.
Hashem spoke to Moshe and said, "I have taken the Leviim from among Bnei Yisrael in place of every first-born from his mother among Bnei Yisrael. The Leviim shall be Mine. For all the firstborns were Mine. From the day that I struck all the firstborns of the Land of Egypt I sanctified for Myself all the firstborns of Israel, from man until beast, they shall all be Mine. I am Hashem."
Until the sin of the Golden Calf, the service of the korbanos was meant to be conducted by the firstborn male of each family. They had been sanctified to Hashem's service when their life was spared during the plague of the firstborn. However, they lost this privilege through their involvement in the sin of the Golden Calf. Their sanctity was then transferred to the Tribe of Levi, who took no part in this sin.
Nonetheless, the Sifra states that in the ultimate future, when all the wrongs of the world will be set right, and all our sins are cleansed through teshuvah and the hardships of Golus, Bnei Yisrael will return to the holy heights we enjoyed before we ever sinned. Then, the firstborn will return to their position to serve in the Beis HaMikdash.
The Mishna states as follows:
עד שלא הוקם המשכ היו הבמות מותרות ועבודה בבכורות. ומשהוקם המשכן נאסרו הבמות ועבודה בכהנים.
Until the Mishkan was erected, bamos (private altars on which to offer sacrifices) were permitted and sacrifices were offered by the firstborn. After the Mishkan was erected, bamos became forbidden and sacrifices were offered by the Kohanim.
By listing these two points side by side, the Mishna hints that they are interconnected. Before the Mishkan was built, the service of the korbanos was available to every individual family. Private bamos could be built in every courtyard and sacrifices offered thereon by the foremost member of each family. The field of holiness was open to the entire world. It had not yet been limited to any specific holy place or holy person. This is as Rashi states:
עד שלא נבנה אהל מועד היתה שכינה מצויה באהלי צדיקים.
Before the Mishkan was built, the Shechinah rested in the tents of the Tzaddikim.
This was the situation as it was meant to be, and it would have remained so had Bnei Yisrael not sinned with the Golden Calf. The Shechinah was meant to rest on the homes of each individual family, not just on the collective center of communal service, the Beis HaMikdash. Each family was meant to have its own representative in the service of the Creator (the firstborn), rather than limiting this service to one family (the Kohanim) or one Tribe (Levi).
Had our homes been free from sin, the Shechinah that rested in the Beis HaMikdash could have rested upon each and every Jewish family. Every private altar would have had the holiness of the Mizbei'ach in Yerushalayim, and every firstborn would have been as holy as the Kohen Gadol.
However, when we proved ourselves unworthy of this exalted state, the mantle of holiness was lifted from the individuals and placed instead upon the worthy representatives of the community. The firstborn were replaced by the Kohanim and Leviim, and the private altars were replaced by the communal Mizbei'ach in the Mishkan.
The Seforno writes:
"והתהלכתי בתוככם": ענין המתהלך הוא ההולך אנה ואנה לא אל מקום אחד בלבד. אמר אם כן אתהלך בתוככם כי לא אל מקום אחד בלבד ירד שפע הכבוד כמו שהיה במשכן ובמקדש כאמרו "ועשו לי מקדש ושכנתי בתוכם" כלומר בזה האופן ובאותו המקום בלבד אשכון בתוכם. ובאר זה באמרו "אשר אועד לך שמה ונועדתי שמה לבני ישראל."
אבל אתהלך בתוככם ויראה כבודי בכל מקום שתהיו שם כי אמנם בכל מקום שיהיו שם צדיקי הדור הוא קדוש משכני עליון שבו תשלם כונתו כאמרו "השמים כסאי והארץ הדום רגלי ואל זה אביט אל עני ונכה רוח וחרד על דברי."
“I shall walk among you.” The wording of this verse implies not that Hashem will walk with us to a certain destination, that but He will walk back and forth among us. His glory and holiness will not be limited to one specific location, as it descended upon the Mishkan and the Beis HaMikdash, of which it is written, "They shall make for Me a Mikdash and I will dwell among them," – as if to say, "In that place and in that way alone I shall dwell among them", as the verse continues to explain, "I will meet with you there, and there I shall be known to Bnei Yisrael."
Rather, Hashem will walk among us and reveal His glory in every place we go. Every place where the tzaddikim of the generation will travel will become a holy sanctuary of Hashem. There Hashem's original intention will be fulfilled, of which He said, "The Heavens are My Throne and the Earth is My footstool, yet towards this shall I look – to the poor and brokenhearted who revere My word."
Thus we see that Hashem originally intended for His Presence to be felt among us in every place we go, not only in the Beis HaMikdash. The home of every tzaddik is meant to be a holy sanctuary of Hashem.
Had we the wisdom to set our feet on the straight path, in accordance with Hashem's will, there would have been no need for the Leviim to be set aside as the holy Tribe, or for Yerushalayim to be set aside as the holy city. Our entire nation would have been sanctified for Hashem's service, and the entire world would have been sanctified as Hashem's dwelling place, as the Kotzker Rebbe taught:
הַשָּׁמַיִם שָׁמַיִם לַה' וְהָאָרֶץ נָתַן לִבְנֵי אָדָם - "The Heavens are Hashem's, but the Earth He gave to mankind." The Heavens were sanctified by Hashem, but the Earth was given to mankind to sanctify and elevate it until its holiness equals that of the Heavens.
In the end, this potential will be fulfilled, as Yermiyahu HaNavi prophesized:
וְהָיָה כִּי תִרְבּוּ וּפְרִיתֶם בָּאָרֶץ בַּיָּמִים הָהֵמָּה נְאֻם ה' לֹא יֹאמְרוּ עוֹד אֲרוֹן בְּרִית ה' וְלֹא יַעֲלֶה עַל לֵב וְלֹא יִזְכְּרוּ בוֹ וְלֹא יִפְקֹדוּ וְלֹא יֵעָשֶׂה עוֹד.
And it shall be, when you multiply and are fruitful in the Land in the days to come, says Hashem, they shall no longer say, "The Aron of the Covenant of Hashem." This shall no longer enter their hearts, no longer be remembered, no longer be recalled, and no longer be done.
Rashi explains that we will no longer need to ascend to Yerushalayim to pray before the Aron:
כי כל כניסתכם תהא קדושה ואשכון בה כאלו הוא ארון.
For their entire assembly will be holy, and I shall dwell upon it as it if was the Aron.
In the meantime, until this prophecy will be fulfilled, Hashem did not abandon us in our sins. Although we are unworthy to have all our families and all our dwelling-places sanctified with equal holiness, Hashem set aside the Tribe of Levi as the means through which we can remain attached to Hashem, despite our sins. The holy Tribe offers sacrifices in the holy city on behalf of our entire nation.
To some extent, this holiness is in fact still available to us all. Not through the service of the Beis HaMikdash, but through the other role of the Leviim, as the scholars and disseminators of Torah wisdom, as the Rambam writes:
ולא שבט לוי בלבד אלא כל איש ואיש מכל באי העולם אשר נדבה רוחו אותו והבינו מדעו להבדל לעמוד לפני ה' לשרתו ולעובדו לדעה את ה' והלך ישר כמו שעשהו האלקים ופרק מעל צוארו עול החשבונות הרבים אשר בקשו בני האדם הרי זה נתקדש קדש קדשים ויהיה ה' חלקו ונחלתו לעולם ולעולמי עולמים ויזכה לו בעולם הזה דבר המספיק לו כמו שזכה לכהנים ללוים.
Not only is this true of the Tribe of Levi, but any Jew from anywhere in the world whose spirit so lifts him and whose wisdom so directs him to remove himself [from the distractions of the world] to stand in the service Hashem, to know Him, and to walk straightforwardly as Hashem intended, and to throw off his shoulders the yoke of all the many interests that men seek, he becomes sanctified as the holiest of holies. Hashem becomes his portion and his inheritance forever and ever, and will provide his needs just as He provided for the Kohanim and Leviim.
May we soon merit to see the day in which Bnei Yisrael are restored to our full holiness, when the glory of Hashem will be revealed through the world.
כִּי מָלְאָה הָאָרֶץ דֵּעָה אֶת יְקֹוָק כַּמַּיִם לַיָּם מְכַסִּים
"For the world will be filled with the knowledge of Hashem, as the waters fill the sea."
 Bamidbar 3:11,12
 Midrash Rabbah 1:12
 Midrash Tanchuma, Parshas Re'eih 14
 Bamidbar 3:11,12
 Zevachim 112b
 Shabbos 55b, Rashi s.v. Chilaltah
 Vayikra 26:12
 Tehillim 115:16
 Yermiyahu 3:16