A newly-minted millionaire sought entry into an exclusive society club. When the secretary asked for his net worth, he proudly replied, “$13,403, 374.” The crisp response was not long in coming. “If you're still counting”, said the secretary, “you need not bother with our club.”

Shortly before the Israelites departed Sinai, G‑d instructed Moses to take a census. The total number of men between the ages of 20 and 60 was 603,550. Considering the youth, women and elderly not included, this was a rather impressive count. But perhaps not impressive enough...

Quoting the verse, “And the Israelites will number like the sand of the sea that cannot be measured or counted,” the Talmud points to an apparent contradiction. The beginning of the verse suggests that the Jews will be counted, but at the same time, they will be too numerous to count. The Talmud resolves the contradiction by explaining that when Jews obey the will of G‑d, they are too numerous to count, but when they don't, their numbers dwindle until they become subject to enumeration.1

That the Jews were countable before they departed Sinai suggests that they were tainted by sin. Indeed, the census was ordered some nine months after the Jews worshiped the Golden Calf, and though their sin had been pardoned, their numbers had not yet recovered.

Our sages taught that G‑d counted the Jews to show His love for them,2 but as it turned out, the census actually highlighted their shame. Why, then, were they counted at all?

Another relevant question: Of the entire nation, the only tribe not to worship the Calf was that of Levi. Yet rather than being too numerous to count, this tribe was actually smaller than the others. Whereas the others numbered between 30 and 50,000 men, the Levites numbered barely 20,000. How do we explain this?

To Count Alone

G‑d specifically instructed Moses not to count the tribe of Levi “among the Israelites,” and our sages explained that, “it is fitting that the royal legion be counted alone.”3

The simple explanation of this statement is that the “royal legion” ought to be counted alone, rather than among former sinners. But one of the early chassidic masters offered a different and fascinating interpretation.4

The Talmud relates that G‑d said to the Jews, “Just as you have made me into a single entity, as it states, ‘Hear O' Israel, G‑d is our L‑rd, G‑d is one,’ so shall I make you into a single entity, as it states, ‘Who is like your nation Israel, one nation in the land.’”5 The message here is that the oneness of the Jewish nation is akin to G‑d's oneness.6

When we say G‑d is “one,” we don't mean that He is the first or the best, as is often implied by the number. We mean that He is the only one, and there are no others. In a sense, G‑d is beyond enumeration. “One” is within the milieu of numbers; it is countable. If there is one, it could be followed by a second, and even if there is no second, it would be a matter of fact, not definition.

G‑d's oneness is different. There is no second because, by definition, there cannot be a second; His unity is absolute. In fact, there is no point in even assigning a number to Him. Numbers are assigned to finite things because finite things end at some point and leave space for others to exist. G‑d fills all space and leaves no space for anything else. If anything else exists, it is only by virtue of G‑d's existence. As our sages said, “G‑d is the space of the world; the world is not His space.”7 G‑d is not the first, neither is G‑d the best. G‑d is the only one. A single entity; He stands alone.

We can now understand the deeper meaning of the words, “It is fitting that the royal legion be counted alone.” We don't mean that the Levites should be counted separately from the others. We don't even mean that they should be counted at all. We mean that they should count in the way that G‑d is counted. G‑d stands alone and nothing else can be counted alongside Him. In the same way, His legion should count as a single entity; alone, as one, with nothing else counted alongside them.

When our sages said that those who obey G‑d's will are too numerous to count, they did not (only) mean that they are too great in number. They meant that in committing themselves to the divine will, they become absorbed by and attached to G‑d, thus reflecting His infinite and singular unity. There were only 22,000 Levites, but as a group they reflected and radiated the singular unity of G‑d.

To be counted, one must be distinguishable from the next; where one ends, the other begins. But when a tribe devotes itself fully and completely to G‑d, it comes to reflect His singular unity. They are not countable because they are not distinguishable as separate beings. They have no definable borders of their own. They see themselves as existing by virtue of G‑d's existence. They become more G‑dly and less human.

Redeeming the Firstborn

If the Levites were uncountable, why were they counted?

The census of the Levites was required for another purpose. The firstborn of every Jewish family was originally intended to serve in the Tabernacle, irrespective of tribe. When G‑d slew the Egyptian firstborn and saved the Jewish firstborn, He declared that they would henceforth be dedicated to His service.

But when the firstborn participated in the sin of the Golden Calf, they became ineligible to serve G‑d. Fortunately, the number of the nation's firstborn matched almost perfectly the number of Levites. The Levites were counted so they could be matched individually to the nation's firstborn and thus replace them as G‑d's servants.

Counting the Nation

Now that we know why the Levites were counted, we can return to our original question: Why would a loving G‑d subject His children to a count that only highlighted their shame?

The purpose of the count was to connect the Jews to the Levites. From the time of the sin until the census, the Levites had enjoyed an elevated status. While the other tribes repented and begged for forgiveness, the Levites quietly prepared for their new station as G‑d's servants in His house of worship. When the Levites were matched to the firstborn, who represented all of Israel, the entire nation was uplifted in their merit.

Before they left the scene of their crime, G‑d reminded the entire nation, guilty and innocent, that they were connected, and responsible for one another. The nation was in need of guidance, and the Levites were required to guide. Their task was to guide and uplift the former sinners, to bring them to a place where they, too, would eventually stand alone.

That is a loving G‑d. A G‑d, who wants to see us love each other. A G‑d, who wants to see us guide each other back to His Home. A G‑d in whose love we bask and through whose love we are finally welcomed back into His presence.