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G-d instructed Moses to take a census of the Jewish people in the desert. In all, G-d told Moses to count the Jews three times in a forty-year period. Rashi, the famed eleventh century biblical commentator, explained that G-d counts the Jews because He loves them.[1]
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Home » B'Midbar Parshah, Featured

Bamidbar: To Count Or Not To Count?

Submitted by on May 22, 2011 – 3:38 amNo Comment | 722 views

Are you Still Counting?

A newly minted millionaire sought entry into an exclusive society club. When the secretary asked for his net value he proudly replied, $13,403, 374. The crisp response was not long in coming. “If you’re still counting”, said the secretary, “you need not bother with our club.”

Shortly before the Jews departed Sinai, G-d instructed Moses to take a census. The total number of men between the ages of twenty and sixty was 603,550. Considering the youth, women and elderly this was a rather impressive number. Our question is did the census enhance or diminish their prestige?

Quoting the verse, “And the Israelites will number like the sand of the sea that cannot be measured or counted,” the Talmud points to an apparent contradiction. The beginning of the verse suggests they will be counted, but the end of the verse suggests they will be too numerous to count. The Talmud resolves the contradiction by explaining that when Jews obey the will of G-d they are too numerous to count, but when they don’t, their numbers dwindle till they become subject to enumeration. (1)

That the Jews were countable before they departed Sinai suggests that they were tainted by sin. Indeed the census was ordered some nine months after the Jews worshiped the Golden Calf and though their sin had been pardoned, their numbers had not yet recovered to the point of being too grand to count.

Our sages taught that G-d counted the Jews to show His love for them, but as it turned out the count - innerstreamcensus actually highlighted their shame, which  leaves us with the initial question, why did He count them? (2)

This begs yet another question. Of the entire nation, the only tribe not to worship the Calf was that of Levi. Yet rather than being too numerous to count, this tribe was smaller than the others. Whereas the others numbered 30 – 50,000 men, the Levites numbered barely 20,000. How do we explain this?

To Count Alone

When it came to counting the tribe of Levi, G-d specifically instructed Moses, not to count the tribe of Levi “among the Israelites.” Our sages explained this was because, “it is fitting that the royal legion be counted alone.” (3) The ordinary understanding of this statement is that the royal legion ought to be counted alone, rather than  among former sinners, but in a fascinating insight that answers all our questions, one of the early Chassidic masters offered a different interpretation. (4)

The Talmud relates the following proclamation made by G-d to the Jews. “Just as you have made me into a single entity as it states, “Hear O’ Israel, G-d is our Lord, God is one,” so shall I make you into a single entity as it states, “Who is like your nation Israel, one nation in the land.” (5) The message of this statement is that the oneness of the Jewish nation is akin to G-d’s oneness. (6)

When we say G-d is one we don’t mean that He is the first or the best as is often implied by the number one. We mean that He is the only one and there are no others. In a sense G-d is beyond one. One implies that it is within the milieu of numbers; it is countable. If there is one, it could be followed by a second. Even if it turned out that there was no second, it would be a matter of fact, not definition.

G-d’s oneness is not duplicable. There is no second because, by definition, there cannot be a second; His unity is absolute. In fact, there is no point in even assigning a number to Him. Numbers are assigned to finite things because finite things end at some point and leave space for others to exist.

G-d fills all space and leaves no space for anything else. If anything else exists, it is only by virtue of G-d’s existence. As our sages said, “G-d is the space of the world; the world is not His space.” (7) G-d is not the first, neither is G-d the best. G-d is the only one. A single entity; He stands alone.

We now understand the deeper meaning of the words, “it is fitting that the royal legion be counted alone.” We don’t mean that they should be counted separately from the others. We don’t even mean that they should be counted at all. We mean that they should count in the way that G-d is counted. G-d stands alone and nothing else can be counted alongside Him and in the same way His legion should count as a single entity; alone, as one, with nothing else counted alongside them.

We can now answer our earlier question about why the tribe of Levi was not too vast to count. When our sages tell us that those who obey G-d’s will are too numerous to count they did not mean that they are too great in number. They meant that in committing themselves to the Divine will they become absorbed by and attached to G-d thus reflecting His infinite and singular unity. There were only twenty-two-thousand Levites, but as a group they reflected and radiated the singular unity of G-d.

As we explained earlier, to be counted separately one must be distinguishable from the next; where one ends, the other begins. But when a tribe devotes itself fully and completely to G-d it uniformly reflects His singular unity. They are not countable, because they are not distinguishable as separate beings. They see themselves as existing by virtue of G-d’s existence. They become more G-dly and less human.

Counting The Levites

Why then were the Levites counted?

To redeem the firstborn. The firstborn of every Jewish family was originally intended to serve in the tabernacle irrespective of tribe. When G-d slay the Egyptian firstborn and saved the Jewish firstborn He declared that in saving their lives they would be dedicated to His service. But when they worshiped the Golden Calf they became ineligible to serve G-d. Fortunately the number of the nation’s firstborn matched almost perfectly the number of Levites. The Levites were counted so they could be matched individually to the nation’s firstborn and thus replace them as G-d’s servants.

Counting The Nation

Now that we know why the Levites were counted we can come back to the first question, why would a loving G-d subject his children to a count that only highlighted their shame?

The purpose of the count was to connect the Jew to the Levite. From the time of the sin until the census the Levites enjoyed an elevated status. Whereas the other tribes repented and begged for forgiveness the Levites quietly prepared for their new station as G-d’s servants in His House of Worship.

Just before embarking on their journey from Sinai, G-d reminded the nation and the Levites that they were connected to each other and responsible to one another. The nation was in need of guidance and the Levites were required to guide. For better or for worse, their new station was in replacement of those who hand sinned. Their task was therefore to guide and uplift the former sinners; to bring them to a place where they too would, should and actually could, also stand alone.

That is a loving G-d. A G-d, who wants to see us love each other. A G-d, who wants to see us guide each other back to His Home. A G-d, in whose love we bask and through Whose love we are finally  welcomed back into His presence.

Footnotes

  1. Hosea 2:1. Babylonian Talmud ,Yoma 22b.
  2. See Rashi’s commentary to Numbers 1: 1  based on Midrash Tanchuma Bamidbar 4.
  3. Bamidbar Midrash Tanchumah 17. See also Rashi’s commentary to Numbers 1: 49.
  4. Rabbi Nachum of Chernobel in his commentary Maor Enayim.
  5. Babylonian Talmud, Brachos 6a. See also Deuteronomy 6: 4 and Chronicles I 17: 21.
  6. As we indicated earlier in the essay, this applies only when the nation obeys G-d’s will.
  7. Bereshit Rabbah 68: 10.

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