Parshat Bemidbar: Every Person is an Entire World

Rabbanit Rivky Yisraeli is the Educational Director of the Neveh Channah High School for Girls, in Memory of Anna Ehrman

RIVKY YISRAELI 1 300x300 1This week’s Torah portion, Parshat Bemidbar, opens the Book of Numbers, also known as the Book of Counting. Indeed, at the very beginning of this portion, the great census conducted by Moshe and Aharon is described:

“And the Lord spoke unto Moshe in the wilderness of Sinai, in the tent of meeting, on the first day of the second month, in the second year after they were come out of the land of Egypt, saying: ‘Take ye the sum of all the congregation of the children of Israel, by their families, by their fathers’ houses, according to the number of names, every male, by their polls; from twenty years old and upward, all that are able to go forth to war in Israel: ye shall number them by their hosts, even thou and Aharon.”  (Bemidbar 1:1-3)

Immediately following this section, in the continuation of Chapter 1, the stages of the census are detailed meticulously, enumerating the count for each tribe as well as the total number of those registered.

Why is it so crucial for the Torah to detail these numbers so precisely, especially since this is not the first census conducted in the desert? Only a few chapters earlier, another count was taken before the construction of the Tabernacle (Shemot 30).

The Rashbam addresses this question in his commentary: “For now they must set out for the Land of Israel, and those who have reached the age of twenty years are fit to go out to war… Therefore, the Holy One, blessed be He, commanded that they be counted at the beginning of this month.”

The Rashbam explains that the reason for the census is ultimately a practical one: the people of Israel are on the verge of entering and conquering the land, and the proper course of conduct would be to find out the exact number of men above the age of twenty, i.e., those eligible for fighting in Israel’s wars. 

The Ramban offers three distinct reasons for the census described in the Torah. His third reason aligns with the Rashbam’s explanation: “For this was done in the manner of kingdoms when they go to war. Now they are poised to enter the land and engage in battle with the kings of the Amorites beyond the Jordan River and with all others… Moshe and the heads of the tribes needed to know the number of soldiers ready for war and the count of each tribe… for the Torah does not rely on miracles such that a single man shall chase a thousand foe.”

Here, the Ramban highlights the message that upon entering the land, the Israelites will have to engage in warfare, rather than simply rely on God’s miracles.

The Ramban’s second reason tackles a more profound notion. He states that “God commanded to count them in a manner dignifying and honoring each and every individual. Rather than asking the head of each family – How many are in your family? How many sons do you have? – [God commanded] let each person pass before you with reverence and honor, and thus shall you count them…”

Moreover, the Ramban explains that the count, conducted legulgelotam [“by each head”], teaches us the significance of each individual in Israel. The soldiers are not to be seen as grains of sand, replaceable if one is lost. Each soldier is unique and indispensable.

These words of the Ramban touch us deeply at this time when our soldiers are fighting with courage and valor.  Each soldier is precious to us, unique and special to his family and to all of Israel. The world dims when a soldier falls in battle, and an entire world is lost to the family and to Israel. This is not merely due to the absence of one more soldier in the battle, but because an individual, unique in God’s world, has been lost, leaving the world forever lacking. Their individuality, personality, and unique qualities are like a missing letter in our Sefer Torah.

The Ramban’s first reason for the count is, perhaps, the most significant of all: “This may have been to show them His kindness upon them, for their ancestors descended to Egypt with seventy souls, and now they were as numerous as the sands of the sea, as can be seen from the count of those who had reached the age of twenty…”

Here, the Ramban highlights the great miracle of our existence, emphasizing the fact that despite numerous harsh and brutal blows, we have not been destroyed; instead, we have flourished and multiplied. From a place of gratitude for the great miracles they had experienced, the people of Israel march with pride to conquer the Land of Israel.

In the Ramban’s view, both the commandment to remember our exodus from Egypt as well as the commandment to count the people of Israel are meant to reinforce within us the hidden miracles that sustain our lives, and which we may overlook in times of distress.

These words of the Ramban are still significant in our own times. We, too, have endured suffering.  In recent generations, we have survived a Holocaust and pogroms; we have returned to the Land of Israel and established a state and an army; and we have thrived and multiplied here in our land. With this upright pride, accompanied by God’s daily and hourly kindness, we go forth to defend our nation.

May it be God’s will that the promise of the prophet Micha be fulfilled in our times: “As in the days when you came out of the land of Egypt, I will show them wonders.”


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