A careful reading of the first Parsha of Sefer במדבר סיני points to a bizarre, startling and disturbing conclusion – שבט לוי is not included in Bnai Yisrael. Let us take a look. In the beginning of the Perek, Hashem tells to count כל עדת בני ישראל - “the entire congregation of Bnai Yisrael” (emphasis added), and appoints one leader from each tribe to assist Moshe in the task. Yet a careful look reveals that לוי is conspicuously absent from those twelve tribes. Lest someone think that we are jumping to conclusions, the summary at the end of the counting seems to confirm the observation. In Pasuk 45 we are given the total count, and that is introduced with the phraseויהיו כל פקודי בני ישראל... - “And the count of the entire Bnai Yisrael was...” (emphasis added). When describing the total of Bnai Yisrael somehow לוי doesn’t count.
Again, some of you may be thinking that I am reading too much into too little. Let us continue toward the conclusion of the Perek. In Pasuk 49 Hashem explicitly instructs Moshe that לוי is not to be counted with the rest of Bnai Yisrael. And later, in Pasuk 52, the Torah describes where Bnai Yisrael, as opposed to שבט לוי are to camp - since שבט לוי is to camp surrounding the משכן lest anything happen to Bnai Yisrael. The deliberate language in the Torah distinguishes between the לויים and Bnai Yisrael and sends a clear message - לוי is not included in the discussion of Bnai Yisrael. Truth be told, we probably suspected that something was different about them. After all, we now know that they were not included in the regular conscription of soldiers and were given no portion in the Land of Israel. The description offered at the opening of this Sefer as well as the language used throughout ספר דברים suggest that the tribe of לוי is an honored guest in our midst… (והלוי אשר בקרבך), but certainly not one of us.
The status of the לויים is a particular obsession in the first part of this Sefer, and they are given special attention in each of the first four Perakim as well as numerous other times throughout. On the one hand they seem to be apart from Bnai Yisrael, while on the other they are very much a part of them. The ambiguity surrounding the לויים heightens our awareness of them and the conspicuousness of their absence. Let us take a peek, both forward and backward, to shed just a bit of light on their unusual station.
Looking forward, we know that the לויים play central roles as religious leaders and teachers. They are scattered throughout the countryside to ensure that Jewish education could penetrate far-flung villages. As Moshe blesses them at the end of his life, יורו משפטיך ליעקב ותורתך לישראל, “let them instruct the laws to Yaakov and the teachings to Yisrael.” Rambam echoes in a marvelous passage at the end of הלכות שמיטה ויובל : “And why did Levi not merit a portion in the Land of Israel? Because he was segregated to perform Hashem’s service and to teach His straight paths and His just laws to the masses... they are Hashem’s army...”
Looking backward, a pivotal part of the legacy of the לויים revolves around their involvement after חטא העגל as they followed Moshe’s instructions and slew somewhere in the range of 3,000 Jews steeped in idolatrous worship. While they were following explicit instructions, and while their promotion to service in the משכן is just seen as reward for their heroic deeds, it is not hard to imagine that there were many individuals, perhaps relatives of the deceased, who harbored resentment toward theלויים . It is even possible that there were many who resented the very fact that the לויים saw themselves as “holier than thou,” refusing to partake in the celebration of the golden calf and exacting vengeance upon the nation afterward. On a purely social level, it is reasonable to suggest that שבט לוי was shunned by the people long before the opening of this Sefer.
To be sure, both of the doors we opened need to be explored further. Whether God was creating reality by separating the לויים or reflecting an existing reality by adopting them for special service, their status within Bnai Yisrael is by no means clear. The implications of this in the study of תנ''ך should be clear. The implications for us today are less so, and may extend to many individuals or groups whose motivations and ideals have led them to operate on the fringes of our self declared societal boundaries.