“But this is how I’ve been my entire life!”

How many times have you heard that, or maybe even said it yourself? Chances are, many.

And that’s exactly what a friend told me the other day, recounting his experience with his therapist.

As children of Holocaust survivors, his parents didn’t often tell him the three precious words, “I love you,” and for him, that’s just how life worked: parents obviously love their children, and that’s that. No need for speeches.

His therapist didn’t agree. “Tell them you love them, and tell them often” he was told. And it was then that he pushed back, “But I’m already 40 years old and never did it that way, how do you expect me to change it now?”

Good question.

Special Levite Count

This week’s parshah is the first in the books of Numbers, and my oh my, is there a lot of counting. The nation is counted and we are given a detailed record of the tallies, tribe by tribe. The general population amounted to a grand total of 603,550 adult males.

Then, towards the end of the parshah, G‑d appears to Moses and Aaron and tells them to tally up the male members of the tribe of Levi, ages 30-50 only—i.e., those eligible to serve in the Temple:

Make a count of the sons of Kehot from among the children of Levi . . . From the age of thirty until the age of fifty, all who enter the service, to do work in the Tent of Meeting.1

Why was this count necessary?

Transforming the Landscape

In a fascinating essay on the parshah, the Alter Rebbe, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, founder of Chabad chassidism, sets out to explain the purpose of our ancestors’ long and arduous journey in the desert. After all, if the idea was because G‑d wanted to punish them by not allowing them to immediately enter the Promised Land, couldn’t He have let them hang out in the Bahamas instead? Or at least some nice vacation spot along the Red Sea and let them do a little scuba diving until they were ready? What was the point of wandering?

The Alter Rebbe explains that there was far more at play here. A desert is a desolate place, a dry, arid, and lifeless expanse, too hot for human habitation. By and large, only harmful creatures spend time in a desert.

In a spiritual sense, a desert represents an ungodly space, for G‑d is the source of all life and vitality. The death and danger lurking in the desert is thus symbolic of the negative forces that conceal G‑d’s expression and run counter to His will.

Dispatching the people to wander around the desert for 40 years served to alleviate some of this negativity and introduce a bit more G‑dliness into the world, specifically in the places where He’s least comfortable.

In this respect, the Levites had a uniquely important role, for they carried the Tabernacle and its holy articles as the people journeyed about. The act of transporting holy objects to a very unholy place was particularly poignant in this effort to transform a spiritual wasteland into a holy garden.

An Extra Boost

Building on the Alter Rebbe’s ideas, we can well understand why the Levites needed a special counting. You see, this whole business of counting wasn’t about knowing how many members were in the tribe. G‑d isn’t an accountant, and anyway, don’t you think G‑d already knows the numbers? Rather, the purpose of counting the people was, to borrow from contemporary language, “to make them count.”

In other words, when you count something, you show that you take notice, that you care about it enough to figure out how many there are. Each component is no longer just part of one big blob, rather an individual entity quantifiably unique from everyone and everything else.

And that’s why the Levites needed a special count of their own. As the vanguard of this effort to transform their unholy environment, they needed special empowerment. Leading the way with the holy articles on their shoulders, the Levites were given an extra boost from G‑d with a counting of their own.

You Can Turn This Around

What does this have to do with you and me?

A lot.

Think about your life for a moment and the patterns you’ve repeated for ten, twenty, or maybe even fifty years. If you’re honest about it, not all of them are particularly holy or positive. Some of them may look more like a desert than a garden. The more you think about it, the more you realize that a pattern has settled in, and “This is just the way I do things. This is who I am.”

Next come the feelings of despair. “Who am I to turn things around at this point? How can I really create change when I’m already over the hill?” They always told you that “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks,” so you think to yourself, “Listen, it is what it is, this is who I am, so let’s stop being so grandiose and thinking that I’m going to magically change at this point.”

Well, if going to your therapist and finally learning how to be emotionally present for your kids at age 40 seems daunting to you, or if changing your weekend routine to go to shul at 50 years old seems like a crazy thought, think about the Levites. At age 30, they were thrown into a desert and told to change the landscape.

And here’s the encouraging part: just prior to being thrown into the ring, G‑d counted them, sending them off with special powers.

He’s doing the same with you. You can do it.2