Parshat Bamidbar (Numbers 1:1 – 4:20)
In principle, the Torah discourages counting the Jewish people, so it commanded us to produce a certain sum of money to atone for the performance of the census, as we read in the book of Shemot: “… then there will be no plague among them when they are counted.”
Elsewhere in the Tanach, we read of an episode involving King David, in which he was given a choice of one of three punishments for having ordered a census. Ultimately, he chose what he saw as the lightest punishment: a three-day plague. If performing a census is considered such a grave sin, why does Parshat Bamidbar give us such a detailed account of the census performed in the desert? Throughout the generations, our rabbis proposed various answers to this question.
Nachmanides, the great 13th-century Torah commentator from Spain, wrote: “… in my view, the anger (against King David) was because he counted them for no reason, for he would not have gone to war or done anything with them at that point in time. He did it in order to delight in ruling over such a large nation.”
A census could either be an act of conceit or an indispensable measure. When a king counts his subjects and the other denizens of his realm only to gloat over how many people he rules over, it is revolting. However, if the king conducts a census to be better informed on how to prepare for battle, allocate state resources, or the like, he is doing what he must, and is motivated by his sense of responsibility and concern for his nation.
This is exactly what our parsha is teaching us. The leaders of a country and their actions can either be valid and permissible, or wrong and contemptible. It all depends on the goal they set, not on the technical details of the deed itself. Moses was asked to count the Jewish people as they prepared to enter the Land of Israel to prepare for the battles that awaited them there, unlike King David, whose specific objective for conducting his census elude us.
Interestingly, the Torah does not rely on miracles or on Divine assistance, for if that were so, censuses would be prohibited altogether, as they are unneeded.
Scripture give us another way of looking at censuses. When a person likes others, he tends to count them repeatedly. We mention this during the recitation of the Unetaneh Tokef prayer on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur: “As a shepherd examines his flock, making his sheep pass under his staff, so do You cause to pass before You every living soul…” Our sages tell us that people are accustomed to inspecting their pockets and counting their money “because they are fond of it”.
Thus, Rashi, the great 11th-century French-Jewish sage, explained this verse: “… because they were dear to him, he counted them often. He counted them when they left Egypt, He counted them when they committed the Sin of the Golden Calf, he counted them to know the number of survivors. He counted them when He allowed His divine presence to rest among them. The Tabernacle was built on the first of Nissan, and He counted them on the first of Iyyar.”
According to Rashi, there was no real need for conducting a census, and it was not the nation’s entry into the Land of Israel with which God was most concerned at this point. A technical census could be in order at times, but if it is done, it needs to be atoned for, out of fear that it might involve some degree of conceit or viewing human beings in a functional sense. This is why a half-shekel needed to be given during each technical census, and this is where King David faltered.
The censuses in the Book of Numbers were done out of love. This book is called the Book of Counting, but it could just as easily have been called the Book of Love, because the many censuses recounted in this book are an expression of the profound connection between God and His nation, Israel.
It is for good reason that this love must be restated particularly after the Sin of the Golden Calf, the Sin of the Spies, and other setbacks during the nation’s desert sojourn. Namely, to emphasize that it is an unconditional love. That is why God counted us, and will continue to do so.
We read Parshat Bamidbar as we approach the end of the counting of the Omer. We count 49 days from Passover until Shavuot (which will occur this weekend). This is one of the ways we can express our love and longing for the day we received the Torah. Counting days, people, or even objects can be a manifestation of attitude that is either base and cavalier, or noble and worthy. The census in the desert, and the counting we conduct nowadays, direct our gaze to the good things in life.
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