The Torah reading of Bamidbar begins with G‑d telling Moshe that he and his brother Aharon, the Kohen Gadol (High Priest), were to tally the number of the Jewish people.1 The verse goes on to state2 that G‑d told Moshe “not to take a tally or census of the Levites together with the [other] Jews” — they were to be counted separately.

The manner in which the Levites were counted differed as well: While all the other tribes were counted by Moshe and Aharon, the Levites were counted “by G‑d Himself,”3 all except for Aharon, who was not counted at all.4

Why were the Jews counted by Moshe and Aharon and the Levites by G‑d? Furthermore, why wasn’t Aharon counted?

Spiritual service is divided into three categories:

a) performance of mitzvos ,

b) study of Torah,

c) cleaving to G‑d through prayer — service that finds its ultimate expression in mesirus nefesh , total self-sacrifice for G‑d.

There are a specific number of mitzvos5 — 613 — to which we may neither add nor detract.6 Moreover, each and every mitzvah is strictly delineated.7 For the main purpose8 of mitzvos is to draw down holiness into the physical world. This is why more mitzvos involve interaction with physical objects, which are inherently limited and thus countable.

Torah, in and of itself, transcends physicality, limitation and number, transcending even the bounds of space and time. As our sages note:9 whenever one studies in the Torah about the laws of an offering, it is considered as if he had brought the actual offering.

Nevertheless, Torah itself has some relationship to numbers, inasmuch as it serves as the source and basis of all mitzvos — themselves inherently limited and numbered.

Mesirus Nefesh , however, is entirely beyond any kind of limitation, for it denotes a cleaving to G‑d that knows no bounds.

The three categories — mitzvos , Torah and mesirus nefesh — resonate with the three general divisions within the Jewish people, a) the majority of Jews, b) the tribe of Levi, c) the Kohen Gadol.

Most Jews serve G‑d in the first manner, performing mitzvos that involve interaction with the physical world and thus elevating it to holiness — they are “doers of good deeds.”10

With regard to the Levites, the Rambam states:11 “They were singled out for divine labor and service… to teach His just and righteous paths and laws to the multitudes …. They were therefore isolated from worldly affairs.” In other words, their primary concern was the study of Torah.

But the very fact that their service involved “teaching the multitudes” indicates that they were not entirely removed from those Jews whose main occupation was with worldly affairs.

The highest category of all was the Kohen Gadol , who was commanded “not to leave the Sanctuary”12 — his service involved a constant cleaving to and unification with G‑d, beyond all measure and limitation.

Herein lies the difference with regard to who was counted and by whom:

The majority of the Jews, whose main manner of spiritual service was the (numbered) physical mitzvos, were counted and numbered in a strictly physical manner.

The Levites, whose main spiritual service was Torah — both in its unlimited form and as it related to mitzvos and teaching others — were also subject to count and “number,” but not in a natural manner, rather by G‑d Himself, who is beyond limitation.

The Kohen Gadol , however, whose service transcended all limitations, was beyond the limitations implied by “number,” and was therefore not counted at all.

Based on Likkutei Sichos Bamidbar, 5747