ADONAI said to Moshe, “Register all the firstborn males of the people of Isra’el a month old and over, and determine how many there are. Then you are to take the L’vi’im for me, ADONAI, in place of all the firstborn among the people of Isra’el, and the cattle of the L’vi’im in place of the firstborn of the cattle belonging to the people of Isra’el.” Moshe counted, as ADONAI had ordered him, all the firstborn among the people of Isra’el. The total number of firstborn males registered, a month old and over, of those who were counted, was 22,273. ADONAI said to Moshe, “Take the L’vi’im in place of all the firstborn among the people of Isra’el, and the cattle of the L’vi’im in place of their cattle; the L’vi’im are to belong to me, ADONAI. Since there were 273 more firstborn males from Isra’el than male L’vi’im, in order to redeem them, you are to take five shekels [two ounces] for each of these (use the sanctuary shekel, which is equal to twenty gerahs). Give the redemption money for these extra people to Aharon and his sons.”Numbers 3:40-48
This week’s parsha explains how the Levites replaced the firstborn of Israel in being dedicated to Hashem. Originally, the firstborn of all Israel (as well as firstborn animals) were all dedicated to Hashem. Rashi explains that this changed after the incident of the Golden Calf. After the Golden Calf, all the descendants of Levi, including Aaron and his sons, would have a special role.
The method by which this replacement takes place in the Torah is interesting and important. There are 22,000 Levites, and 22,273 firstborn. There is a difference of 273 firstborn. Hashem knew there was a difference in the numbers. Hashem could have made the numbers match exactly. Or, Hashem could have simply ignored the fact that there is a slight difference in the numbers. Hashem does neither, because the difference, and how the difference is treated, teaches a Torah lesson to us.
The 273 firstborn that are not replaced by Levites are still dedicated to Hashem. The 22,000 firstborn are redeemed by 22,000 Levites. Torah is teaching us that the 273 firstborn must also be redeemed, and this can be accomplished financially. The redemption price is five shekels per person. Therefore, every firstborn is redeemed either by a Levi or by the five shekel redemption price.
Redemption has a price. This is an important Torah lesson. The redemption of a person may be paid by another person, or it may be paid with financial assets. This becomes an important precedent, and has application in several areas in the Torah. This redemption price precedent allowed the sages to understand the real meaning behind the verse “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” Just as a redemption price may replace the firstborn, so a redemption price can compensate an injury. This Talmudic concept makes perfect sense, otherwise as Tevye says, “That way, the whole world will be blind and toothless.” In this way, financial compensation may replace injury just as financial compensation replaced the firstborn.