Shabbat Parshat Pinchas
As the Israelites approach the end of their journey, after a devastating plague, Hashem commands a final census of His people:
And it was after the plague --- Hashem spoke to Moshe and to Elazar son of Aharon the Kohen, saying, “Take the count of all the community of the Children of Israel, from twenty- years- old and above, by their fathers’ house, all those who go out to the legion in Israel” (Bamidbar 26:1-2).
Rashi explains the motivation behind this count in two ways: 1) Moshe is compared to a shepherd whose flock was attacked by wolves (the plague), and he counts to see how many remain. 2) Just as the people were counted when Moshe initially undertook to lead them out of Egypt, now that he is preparing to return them to Hashem he must count them again.
There follows a census according to the tribes and their family subdivisions. Over the years, some tribes have grown, others have shrunk, and a number of families have been lost entirely.
On the threshold of entry into the Land of Israel, this final census is directly connected to the imminent division of the land according to the tribes: And Hashem spoke to Moshe, saying, “Among these shall the land be divided as an inheritance, by the number of names” (verses 52-53).
Rashi here (based on Bava Batra 117a) explains that only these, and no others, inherit the land: Even if a child were to pass the age of 20 by the time of the conquest and division, he would not receive his own portion.
After this: And these are the tallies of Levi by their families … (verse 57 ff.)
But why count Levi at all, seeing that they are not included in the division of the land?
Ramban suggests two answers: 1) The Levites were allotted places to live in 48 cities, and grazing land for their animals; it is in this sense that the Levites received a portion in the land, and perhaps only the ones listed here, and not those born later, were entitled to this. 2) So as to accord Levi equality with the other tribes:
“to give them honor before Hashem, so that the king’s own legion should not be treated worse by not counting them, as were the rest of the people.”
Another answer is suggested by Maharsha (R. Shmuel Eliezer ben Judah HaLevi Edels, 1555-1631) in his commentary to Bava Batra 122a. The Talmud discusses the implications of the final chapters of the book of Yechezkel, which presents a vision of the Land of Israel in the Messianic era. Under Yehoshua, Levi did not receive land; Rashbam (R. Shmuel ben Meir, c. 1080-1174) says that their cities were donated by the other tribes and the two divisions of Yosef, Menashe and Ephraim, each received a portion.
But, says the Talmud, whereas originally the Land was divided among twelve tribes, “In the future, the land of Israel will be divided among thirteen tribes.” The first division was by lottery (see verses 54-56); consequently, each tribe received different types of territory. “But in the future, there will be no tribe that will not have a share of the mountains, the lowlands and the valleys, as it is said, The gate of Reuven, one; the gate of Yehudah, one; and the gate of Levi, one (Yechezkel 48:31). And the Holy One, Blessed be He will divide it Himself, as it is said, And these are their divisions, says Hashem (48:29).”
Maharsha elaborates: Yehoshua’s division was imperfect because it was not intended for all time. Under those circumstances Levi, “the inheritance of Hashem,” could not take possession. However, in the Messianic era, the division will be perfect and eternal: Hashem Himself will divide, and Levi can then take a portion among the tribes equally. This is the view of Rashbam, Tosafot and SeMaG (Sefer Mitzvot Gadol, R. Moshe ben Yaakov of Coucy, 13th Century, Negative Commandment 276).
As for the future division into thirteen parts, Rashbam says the tribe of Yosef will take only one portion (based on Yechezkel 48:32), and Levi will receive a portion as well.
“And Who receives the other [i.e., thirteenth] portion?” -- Said R. Chisda, “The Prince [Mashiach].”
Rambam (“Laws of Kings and Their Wars”, 4:8) codifies this as law. However, nowhere does Rambam mention the tribe of Levi receiving a portion in the time of Mashiach. [He probably thinks that Menashe and Ephraim will each receive a portion.] This is because it is forbidden for Levi to receive part of the Land (Book of the Commandments, Negative Commandment 169; SeMaG, loc. cit.; Sefer HaChinuch [ascribed to R. Aharon HaLevi or R. Pinchas HaLevi of Barcelona, mid-13th Century], § 504; Rambam, Mishneh Torah, “Laws of Shemittah and Yovel” 13:10). See also R. Yechiel Michel Epstein (1829-1908), in Aruch HaShulchan He-Atid, “Laws of Yovel” 38:11. Furthermore, all mitzvot are eternal, never to be altered or nullified, even in the time of the Mashiach (Rambam, “Thirteen Principles of Faith” # 9; “Laws of Kings” 11:3).
R. Moshe Feinstein (1895- 986) in Iggrot Moshe (Orach Chayim II 113) says the law that Mashiach will take a thirteenth of the Land is different, however. It is not a violation of Among these shall the land be divided since, as a king, Mashiach is allowed to take any part of the land he likes. Yechezkel merely posits that the Mashiach’s portion will be exactly one thirteenth.
Clearly, Rashbam feels that Yechezkel (as understood by the Talmud) prophesies that Levi will also receive an equal portion with the other tribes in the time of Mashiach. Maharsha agrees, concluding that this is why the census is taken of Levi now, after the other tribes. Ramban most likely sides with Rambam, and thus could not suggest Maharsha’s answer.
Yet, in the view of Maharsha, Moshe now takes charge of a census of the people of Israel that not only prepares them for the next generation, but for the time of Mashiach as well.