Shabbat Shalom: Parshat Ki Tisa (Exodus 30:11-34:35)
By Rabbi Shlomo Riskin
Efrat, Israel –“When you lift up the heads of the children of Israel to count them (in a census), let each one give an atonement offering for his soul when they are counted, so that there not be a plague in the counting of them” (Exodus 30:12)
This opening verse of our Biblical portion teaches that it is forbidden to take a number count of the Israelites – a census activity which Jewish organizations are constantly involved in doing. This prohibition is reinforced by the prophet Hosea (chapter 2), when he declares: “The number of the children of Israel shall be as the sands of the sea, which cannot be numbered and cannot be counted…” And historically even King David learned the bitter lesson of the power of this command, when – against the will of his Chief Commander Joab – he ordered a census, and the Israelites suffered a plague (II Samuel, 24).
Why can’t we count Jews? What is the meaning of “give an atonement offering for his soul”? And didn’t Hosea realize that we are not now – and were not in his day nor in any other time in Jewish history – as numerous as the sands of the sea?
The answer is to be found in a very strange incident during the judgeship of Gideon, great leader of Israel, against the Midianite enemy (Judges 6-7), which is cited by Chief Rabbi Sacks in his “Covenant and Conversation”. God encourages war against Midian, Gideon assembles 32,000 soldiers, and God says they are too many for Him to place Midian in their hands (sic)!? Gideon allows exemption for those who are frightened and wish to return home; only 10,000 remain. God believes that there are still too many and orders Gideon to take his men to a waterway and have them drink. Ninety-seven hundred kneeled down on their knees to drink and three hundred lapped up the water with their hands, remaining in an upright position. God has Gideon wage the battle only with the 300 who did not kneel – with those soldiers who understood that it is only permissible to kneel before God. Even though the opposing Midianite forces were “innumerable (unable to be counted) like the sand at the edge of the sea in large quantity (Judges 7:12)”, the small band of 300 – waging a surprise nocturnal battle accompanied with great victorious sounds of the Shofar – won the day!
The message is indubitably clear. A census presupposes that in battle and when compared to other nations, there is strength in numbers, numbers count. The Divine commandment forbidding a census comes to teach that if God is with Israel, then numbers become totally unimportant; to be alone with God is to always be with a majority of one. And to be with God means to be righteous, to be committed to the cause, to believe in oneself, in one’s nation and one’s mission.
A small band of dedicated people willing to sacrifice one’s life to a Divine cause – such as a Jewish homeland poised and inspired to teach the world about a God of love, morality, pluralism and peace – is automatically as numerous as the sands at the edge of the shores of the sea. Such an army is as united as are the sands of the sea, and such an army contains soldiers each of whom is willing to give up his life (soul) as an atonement for God. That is why we successfully defeated all of the Arab hordes with a population of barely 600,000 in our War of Independence. Jews who lack the faith to risk their lives meaningfully in a just war for the sake of peace may well find that their lives will be taken absurdly by plague, God forbid.
And if our Biblical portion begins by teaching that it is forbidden to count Jews in a census for the sake of comparison to other nations, it continues on to teach that nevertheless, every single Jew within Israel certainly does count. Moses is atop Mr. Sinai (or in the supernal heavens) receiving the Decalogue of morality from God, while the panicking Israelites – having expected their great prophet to return on the fortieth day when he planned his return for the forty-first day – are worshipping the golden calf. God commands Moses: “Get down, because your nation whom you took up from the land of Egypt is acting perversely” (Exodus 32:7)
The Sages of the Talmud expand on God’s words: “Get down from our exalted state. I only gave you greatness because of your nation. Now that your nation is sinning, what do I need you for?” (B.T. Berakhot 32a). Picture the scene: here is the greatest Kollel (Rabbinical Seminary) in history, with the Almighty as Dean of the Academy (Rosh HaYeshiva) and Moses as disciple (avrech). Nevertheless, God explains that He did not enter into a covenant with the elite, most dedicated Jewish scholars; no, God entered into a covenant with every single Jew, from the elders and judges to the choppers of wood and the drawers of water.
Just as a Holy Torah Scroll is invalidated by a single letter which is missing, so is historic Israel (Knesset Yisrael) invalidated if even one Jew is disaffected. Moses must go down to his errant nation and lift up each of the Israelites, restore every Jew to the commitment of the Divine message and mission. Yes, the Jews must not be counted, but each and every Jew certainly counts!