By Avraham Eisen
This week’s parasha, Bemidbar, opens the Book of Bemidbar which is the fourth of the five books of the Torah. It is also known as the Book of Numbers (Hebrew: Pikudim) because a considerable part of it is devoted to counting the People of Israel – its statistical reporting is reminiscent of the kind made famous by the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics. We can find precise numbers of the number of army veterans, the number of Levites in service between the ages of 30 and 50, the number of males over one month old and more. This inventory raises difficulties and begs the question – why did all these numbers make it into the sacred codex? What makes these censuses so special that thousands of years later we’re still reading the reports in our synagogues and Batei Midrash?
The traditional interpretation that has been accepted throughout the generations is presented by the commentator, Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki (Rashi):
“Because they were dear to Him, He counted them often. When they left Egypt, He counted them when they fell because [of the sin] of the golden calf, He counted them to know the number of the survivors; when His Divine Presence rested among them, He counted them. On the first of [the month of] Nissan, the Mishkan was erected, and on the first of Iyar, He counted them.”
This nice interpretation indicates that the process of counting represents an excessive affection. At the same time, there is a more realistic interpretation that suggests that the counting was part of the preparation of the People of Israel to conquer the land, to help to understand the physical and material situation of the people – before they begin the upcoming struggle with the existing inhabitants of the land. These two interpretations provide answers to the question of why multiple censuses were conducted one after the other, but they don’t answer the question of why this data became part of our tradition, preserved throughout the generations? What is the deeper eternal message embodied in these ancient statistical tables?
I would like to suggest two answers. The first relates to the democratization and expansion of leadership. Up until the censuses, the leadership of the People of Israel consisted primarily of Moses and Aaron assisting in the execution of divine will and miracles, while most of the rest of the Israelites followed along. But now, as the People of Israel transition from a ragtag group of freed slaves into an organized nation, they require a more diffuse and expanded system of leadership. The censuses, therefore, are led not only by Moses and Aaron, but together with the leaders of every tribe who are listed by name in Chapter 1 of Bemidbar. This highlights a deeper message that a nation cannot be led forever by two men and divine miracles, but the building and growing of a nation must be a joint process with diffuse leadership and everyone taking part.
The second answer relates to the concept of human worth, and the importance of every human being in a community. The painstaking detail and effort involved in the counting of every member of the People of Israel reveals a deeper message. Of course there is the practical purpose of having an exact count (be it for military, taxation or other purposes), but there is an ethical message in the way the census is carried out, in that every person in every household must be counted – and if one is missing, the count is not complete. This process transforms each individual from an object into a subject, an essential player in the bigger whole. Of course, for us, the biblical census is far from complete, because it leaves out women and other essential members of our community.
In our day and time, therefore, we cannot suffice with the mere preservation of these traditions and stories of censuses and counting, but rather we must work to expand our tradition and expand the circle of whom we count in our community and in communal leadership. Our “numbers” today must include women and youth and the “strangers” living among us. This is the “counting” that will signify a new transformation and the beginning of a new era, in the spirit of what was envisioned by the prophet Isaiah:
“I will give them, in My house and within My walls, a memorial and a name, better than sons or daughters. I will give them an everlasting name which shall not perish. As for the foreigners who attach themselves to the Lord, to minister to Him, and to love the name of the Lord, to be His servants — All who keep the sabbath and do not profane it, and who hold fast to My covenant — I will bring them to My sacred mount And let them rejoice in My house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and sacrifices shall be welcome on My altar; For My House shall be called A house of prayer for all peoples.” (Isaiah 56: 5-7)
Avraham Eisen is the Director of BINA’s Department of Education.