Unlike the rest of the Jews, the Levites required a special kind of counting. The verse (Bamidbar 1:49) says, “However, do not count the tribe of Levi, and do not raise their profile (lit: their “heads”] among the children of Israel.”  Rashi offers two explanations: “It is fitting for the legions of the King to be counted separately.  Alternative explanation: God foresaw the decree that all males over twenty years old would perish in the desert, and declared, “the Levites should not be included in the decree since they are Mine because they did not take part in the sin of the golden calf.”

At first glance, either one of Rashi’s explanations would have sufficed.  Why did he offer two explanations?  The answer lies in the nature of the verse itself.  It has two sections: “Do not count the Levites,” and “Do not raise the profile (literally ‘heads’) of the Levites among the rest of the Jews.”  We must conclude that “counting” is different than “raising the profile,” even though both involve numbers.  “Counting” refers to the process of obtaining the total number of souls, while “raising the profile” refers to presenting the final number, however it is obtained.

It is already clear that the Levites are to be “counted” differently than the rest of the Jews, who were counted by the number of half-shekel coins they donated.  However, regarding the Levites, Moshe was commanded to stand outside of their tents, and “…the shechina would precede him and a voice would emerge from the tent saying how many children were present” (Rashi).  Thus, not only was the profile (total number) of the Levites to be presented separately from the rest of the Jews, but even the process of counting them was different.  That’s why the verse is divided into two sections, one involving the process, and the other involving the results.

Now that we understand the distinction between “counting” and “raising the profile,” we can understand our verse in one of two different ways.  Either we take the verse as a whole (with the end of the verse reflecting back on the beginning), in which case we must count the Levites but not include their final number (“profile”) amongst all the other Jews.  Or, we divide the verse into two distinct sections, in which case we are not to count the Levites at all, but nonetheless, we must somehow obtain their sum total (“profile”) without including it among the rest of the Jews.

Reverting to Rashi’s explanations, we see that they correspond to the two options above.  When Rashi says that we are not to count the Levites because they are the “legions of the King,” we understand that we are not to count them together with the rest of the Jews, but nevertheless, the Levites must be counted.  If, however we accept Rashi’s second explanation, that since the Levites would not become involved in the sin of the golden calf, they were not to be counted, this corresponds to the second interpretation, and the Levites were not to be counted at all.

It emerges that there were three processes for counting the Jews: 1) Most of the Jews were required to give a half-shekel, which were then counted  2)  Moshe stood in front of the tents of the Levites, and a voice emerged indicating how many children were in the tent, and 3) No process of counting whatsoever took place, but the sum total nevertheless became known.

The three processes correspond to three categories of Jews: 1) The majority, who place emphasis on physical acts of goodness correspond to those who are counted via the half shekel  2) Those who placed emphasis upon learning Torah, who nevertheless have to teach others and do mitzvoth themselves correspond to the Levites who were counted supernaturally  3) Those whose entire avoda is prayer, who are not at all involved in the physical world, such as the High Priest.  He was not to be counted at all.

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From Likutei Sichot of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, vol 32, page 1-9

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