Parshat Bamidbar: Body Divided; Soul United

Rabbi Aviad Sanders is the Director of Career Development and Placement at the Susi Bradfield Institute for Halakhic Leadership and a ra’m at Midreshet Lindenbaum

The fourth of the Five Books of Moses begins with a new census of the Jewish people and a description of the Jewish people’s encampments during their desert journey. The Torah tells us where each tribe was situated, the precise way each tribe traveled, the specific role of the Levites, and more.

Commentators offered various reasons for Hashem’s decision to count the Jewish people at the beginning of the book of Numbers (Bamidbar), and in general, for the censuses recorded in different parts of the Torah. The best-known reason appears in Rashi’s commentaries, based on Midrash Rabbah. Rashi states that they were counted “because of His love for them”. In other words, since Hashem loved the Jewish people so much, He counted them.

I’d like to try to suggest another reason for the census of the Jewish people that is recorded in the beginning of the Book of Numbers, one that is tied to the place it occurred – the desert. I’d also like to explain why the census is described in such detail, and in so doing, to shed new light on Rashi’s commentary.

We know that in principle, it isn’t so simple to count the Jewish people. The discussion of this census is juxtaposed with the issue of kofer nefesh, “the price of a life” – a payment of a half a shekel. The Book of Chronicles describes how Satan had incited King David to number Israel, and as a result, the people of Israel became afflicted with pestilence, which kills 70,000 people.

Under certain circumstances, if necessary, performing a census of the Jewish people is sanctioned, but it’s clear that it is inadvisable for the census to be performed by people.

Today, too, there is no count of the Jewish people. We have no way of knowing exactly how many Jews there are in the world. It’s a bit easier in the State of Israel: every time a child is born to a Jewish mother, the child is recorded in the Interior Ministry’s computer systems, and through a simple function, we can obtain a printout with the number of Jews in the State of Israel. However, this isn’t the case outside of Israel and most importantly, in the largest Jewish community in the diaspora – namely, the American Jewish community. For obvious historical reasons, Jews do not want to have their religion registered by the authorities. We learned from history that when the central government has records of who is and who isn’t Jewish, it doesn’t necessarily end well for us. Beyond that, however, in the United States, there is separation of church and state, so there are no legal records of who is and who isn’t Jewish.

The very definition of Jewishness is heavily debated among the various Jewish movements in the United States, and, apparently, among the Jews of Israel as well. Is a Jew a person who self-identifies as Jewish, or someone who was born to a Jewish mother? This question drives a wedge between various Jewish movements. It is well known that the Law of Return, which is an index of Jewish immigration to Israel, stipulates that anyone with a Jewish grandparent is Jewish. On the other hand, the Chief Rabbinate, in accordance with Jewish law, only accepts the Jewishness of those whose mothers are Jewish.

Jean Améry, a French-Jewish philosopher who survived the Holocaust, defined as Jewish all those whom the Nazis had been prepared to tattoo with a number. The Nazis didn’t follow Jewish Orthodox tenets in determining who is Jewish. In many ways, the Law of Return defines eligibility for the Law of Return based on how the Nazis would have defined a person a Jewish extraction.

In light of this, how are we to count the Jews of the world? How can we even agree over who is Jewish?

This question is further compounded when we review Judaism itself from the time of the Mishna until the modern day. There is a well-known joke suggesting that wherever there are two Jews, there are three opinions and four synagogues. This joke has rung true from the time of the Exodus until the present day. These aren’t mere squabbles. These are debates on fundamental issues that could create rifts within the Jewish people over the question of what Judaism is. Beit Hillel and Beit Shamai are praised in the Oral Torah because although they had disagreed on a swath of issues, including the very definition of Judaism, they never objected to marriages between their communities, though we can deduce from this that this wasn’t always the case, and that sometimes, disputes led to excommunication and deep divides.

So, who would be bold enough to run a census and count the Jewish people?

During the morning classes of Midreshet Lindenbaum’s summer session, we study the tractate of Megillah. The first topic the tractate covers is the question of who is obligated to observe the commandment of making pilgrimage during the shloshet regalim – the three holidays of pilgrimage (Sukkot, Shavuot, and Pesach) – and who is obligated to see and be seen in the Holy Temple. One of the categories the Gemara discusses is people who are half-slaves, that is, those who are half-subjugated to a master, and “half masters to themselves”. This is a very rare case. The sages of the Mishna had agreed that if such a condition comes into being, we must immediately free the slave.

The commentators of the Gemara thrashed out the definition of the half-slave status to try to understand it. One of the most fascinating comments is made by Yaakov Yisrael Kanievsky (the Steipler Gaon) in his book, Hakehillot Yaakov:

Ostensibly, we should explain the idea of a half-slave and half-freeman in the simplest sense, namely, that that half of his body is a slave, and the other half is emancipated, or that every part of his body is half enslaved, and half-free. All of this, however, is only true for the person’s body. However, his nefesh and his neshama, which are spiritual, are obviously indivisible, and with regard to his soul, because his master owns half of his body, he is called a slave, but because he is half independent, he is called an Israelite, and the laws pertaining to slaves as well as those pertaining to Israelites apply here.

According to the author of Hakehillot Yaakov, we could speak about a body that is half-free and half-slave, but we can’t speak about a halved soul, where half of the soul is free and the other is enslaved, since souls can’t be divided, and the soul of this individual is both free and enslaved, all at once.

We learn from this that there may be different organs in the body, which have different roles to play, but ultimately, the soul is indivisible.

The people of Israel are a nation divided into tribes. Each tribe had its own prince, court, traditions, inherited land, accent, profession, and more. When there are different traditions, dialects and professions, when we are encamped in different places, when we live in different countries,  or when our religious horizons and customs differ, we can easily get confused and make the mistake of saying that we aren’t truly one nation, but rather, a number of nations.

The beginning of the Book of Numbers marks the beginning of Israel’s lengthy stay in the Sinai desert. Until now, everything had happened in a flash: the exodus from Egypt, the bitter waters, the giving of the Torah, the Sin of the Golden Calf, and the construction of the tabernacle. However, once we begin the book of Numbers, all of that is behind us. The people of Israel are now learning how to live together as one people, and this is precisely the moment when the divisions between the tribes begin to surface. It is precisely at this moment that the Holy One, Blessed Be He, stops everything and numbers the Children of Israel tribe by tribe, role by role. The counting of the tribes is so succinct and so highly emphasized in these verses, to impress upon us that the nation of Israel is a complex people and is anything but monolithic. This census echoes the great interest Hashem has in us. It demonstrates to the people of Israel that Hashem loves them, with all their diversity and tribalism, and that He counted them out of love. Hashem teaches us that although the people of Israel may have the semblance of being divided, and even if they truly are divided, precisely because they are a diverse people, made up of different tribes – inside, our souls are one and undivided.

I hope that the profound message Hashem’s census conveys will pervade and teach us something about our nation and ourselves.


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