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|The Book of Be-Midbar
"In the desert" begins with G-d commanding Moshe to take a
census of all men over age twenty, old enough for service. The
count reveals just over 600,000.
The Levi’im are counted separately later, because their service will be unique. They will be responsible for transporting the Mishkan and its furnishings and assembling them when the nation encamps.
The 12 Tribes of Israel, each with its banner, are arranged around the Mishkan in four sections: east, south, west and north. Since Levi is singled out, the tribe of Yosef is split into two tribes, Efraim and Menashe, so there will be four groups of three. When the nation travels, they march in a formation similar to the way they camp.
A formal transfer is made between the first born and the Levi’im, whereby the Levi’im take over the role the firstborn would have had serving in the Mishkan if not for the sin of the golden calf. The transfer is made using all the 22,000 surveyed Levi’im from one month old and up. Only Levi’im between 30 and 50 will work in the Mishkan. The remaining firstborn sons are redeemed with silver, similar to the way we redeem our firstborn today.
The sons of Levi are divided in three main families, Gershon, Kehat and Merari (besides the kohanim, the special division from Kehat’s family). The family of Kehat carried the menorah, the table, the altar and the holy ark.
Because of their utmost sanctity, the ark and the altar are covered only by Aharon and his sons, before the Levi’im prepare them for travel.