By Rabbi Shloimie Lindenbaum
וידבר ה’ אל משה…באחד לחדש השני בשנה השנית…שאו את ראש וכו’ (פרק א פסוק א-ב)
Sefer Bamidbar opens in the second year of Bnai Yisroel’s journey in the desert with a command from Hashem to count the Jewish nation. In the continuing פסוקים it becomes clear that the purpose of this counting is to establish the formation of the Jews’ encampment around the משכן- referred to as the דגלים. Groups of specified שבטים (tribes) were placed together on a particular side of the משכן and they were ascribed flags indicating the uniqueness of each שבט. R’ Yaakov Kamenetsky asks, why did Hashem wait until the second year to do this? They could have organized this immediately after leaving מצרים? He answers that this formation, especially through the flags, publicly highlighted the unique strengths and qualities of each שבט. This differentiation between the שבטים could cause fighting amongst them, as each שבט would feel that their aspirations and goals are the most important. The only way to avoid this strife was by building a משכן and placing it in the center of the מחנה. This way everyone would remember that their strengths were given to them by Hashem for the purpose of serving Him properly. Although everyone is encamped in a different position, they are all facing the center, the משכן, to devote their resources to the commonly shared goal of serving Hashem. That is why they had to wait until the building of the משכן, in the second year, before forming the דגלים.
אך את מטה לוי לא תפקד…בתוך בני ישראל (פרק א פסוק מט)
Moshe was commanded to count the entire Jewish nation but to exclude שבט לוי (the Levite tribe) from the general census, rather they would be counted alone. Rashi explains that Hashem knew that anyone counted from age 20 and up would be subject to the decree of dying in the desert, so He commanded that לוי be counted separately to exclude them from the decree because they did not sin with the Golden Calf. The Medrash says explicitly that had they been in the counting then their שבט would have died as well, even though they did not sin. R’ Chaim Shmulevitz sees from here that when an individual is part of a larger group, he can be dragged along with them in their fate even if he wasn’t involved in their specific actions. This is a lesson to all of us to involve and associate ourselves with the right types of people so that we can all head together in the right direction.