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Moses appointed twelve emissaries to scout out the Holy Land and return with a report. The representative for the tribe of Ephraim was Moses’ primary disciple, Joshua. Until this time, the lad’s name was Oshua. But Moses added a letter to his name and called him Joshua.
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Home » B'Midbar Parshah

Bamidbar: You Count

Submitted by on May 16, 2020 – 10:39 pmNo Comment | 1,509 views

You count, we each do. But the question is, for how much? Do you count for one, do you count for more than one, for less than one? Compared to everyone around you, what is your value?

When G-d instructed Moses to take a census of the Jews, he arrived at a definite number, 603,550.[1] Yet, Hosea prophesied. “the number of the children of Israel will be like the sand of the sea that can be neither counted nor measured.”[2] So can the Jewish people be counted or are we beyond counting?

Then and Now
From a historical perspective, it is impossible to count all the Jews. We have been in existence for so long that it is impossible to trace each Jewish family’s lineage. Over the years, so many Jews have been lost to assimilation and intermarriage that we no longer know who is truly Jewish and who is not.

It is quite possible that some of the leading figures in our communities descend from non-Jewish mothers. It is also quite possible that some very prominent non-Jewish families can trace their roots back to Jewish ancestry.[3]

From a purely halachic standpoint, we need not concern ourselves with such questions because once a person is assimilated into the community and is known as a Jew, we no longer question their lineage.[4] Similarly, once a Jew has assimilated out of the Jewish community and has been lost to Judaism for several generations, we require them to convert before we accept them as Jews. This is purely from a halachic perspective, but from a historical perspective, we can’t possibly know who has a Jewish pedigree and who doesn’t. Thus, we can’t count all the Jews today because we are unable to identify them.[5]

Seen this way, both verses can be true. Hosea’s prophecy has been fulfilled in the modern day when we can’t count all the Jews since they are not all identifiable. Nevertheless, in the days of Moses, before Jews assimilated out of Judaism and non-Jews assimilated into Judaism, the Jews could still be counted.

However, no matter how neatly we tied up all the loose ends, we still can’t pretend to have done it justice. Hosea did not say that the children of Israel will be uncountable because their identity will be unknown. He said that they would be uncountable because they would be like the sands of the sea.[6]

Heaven and Earth
The Talmud poses a similar question and offers an enigmatic answer. The Talmud poses it like this. The verse in Hosea reads, “The number of the children of Israel will be like the sands of the sea that can be neither counted nor measured. The first part of the verse says that there is a number to the children of Israel, but the second part says that they can be neither counted nor measured. Which is correct?

The Talmud posits in its enigmatic way that it is not a contradiction. The second half of the verse refers to a census performed by human hand, the first part of the verse refers to a census performed by the hand of G-d. G-d can count the Jewish people no matter how many they are, but a human hand will eventually tire because there are too many.

With all due respect to the Talmud, if we don’t unpack this statement it is liable to confuse more than it resolves. Why would Hosea introduce the concept of G-d’s counting? There is no precedent for G-d counting the Jews.[7] Once we are asking, we may as well ask what it means that a people are too many to count. How can there be too many? No matter how many they are, they are still a finite number. Given enough brain and brawn, any group should be countable.

Body and Soul
We can gain insight into the Talmud’s thinking and answer all our questions by noting a single seemingly superfluous word. Hosea said that they can be neither measured nor counted. Why the double phrase? Even if it is a figure of speech, it must make sense. How do you measure a number?

This one word communicates a deep message that answers all our questions. Hosea was telling us that the Jews will not be countable because they will be unmeasurable. You can count their bodies because no matter how many they are, they are still a finite number, but you can’t know how much they count for because you can’t measure their souls. Every person has a unique soul. Some have brilliant souls and others have ordinary souls. One brilliant soul can be equal to many ordinary souls. If you can’t measure their souls and don’t know how much each person counts for, you can’t count their number.

Counting the Jewish bodies without measuring their souls, says Hosea, is a false number. You can’t count them (their bodies) because you can’t measure them (their souls).

Comes the Talmud and says, this is true only of humans. Humans can only see the body, but G-d can peer into the heart and soul of a person. G-d can take our true measure. Thus, G-d can count the Jewish people and arrive at a true number. He knows precisely how much each person counts for. Some individuals are as great as ten, others as great as a hundred, and yet others as great as a thousand. The Talmud tells us that Moses was as great as all the Jewish people combined.[8] But only G-d can know this, a human can’t. Says, Hosea, the number of the children of Israel (known to G-d alone), cannot be measured and, therefore, cannot be counted (by a human).

As we contemplate this, we must ask ourselves a piercing question, and more importantly, come up with a satisfactory answer. How much do I count for? Do I count for at least one? If not, what can I do to raise my value? Perhaps an even more important question, if I count for more than one, how much does my neighbor count for and what can I do to raise his or her value?[9]

A final word though. No matter how much our soul counts for, our essence, our bond with G-d, can never be diminished. From the perspective of our essence, we each count as one. No one can count for less and no one need count for more.

[1] Numbers 1:46.

[2] Hosea 2:1.

[3] See Baba Batra 3b about a young maiden who committed suicide to prevent a non-Jewish nobleman from assimilating into the Jewish community. That is just one instance that was foiled, but how many succeeded?

[4] Whether Mashiach will validate these Jews and invalidate these non-Jews is a matter of dispute in the Talmud (Edyut 8:7), but halacha rules that Mashiach will not change the status of Jews who assimilated out of the Jewish community or non-Jews who assimilated into the Jewish community (Rambam Hilchot Melachim Umichamotehen 12:2. See also Kidushin 72b.)

[5] Many Spanish and Portuguese families maintain traditions that are eerily similar to Jewish traditions and it is reasonable to assume that they are descendants of Jewish conversos. Similarly, the ten tribes that were exiled from ancient Israel by Assyria have been lost to history. Though we don’t where and who they are, it stands to reason that their descendants abound. It is fascinating to speculate as to whether these descendants have Jewish souls. It is hard to imagine that their Jewish souls have evaporated over time just because they lost track of their Jewishness.

[6] In fact, G-d promised Jacob explicitly (Genesis 32:13) that his children would not be countable because there would be too many.

[7] Though Rashi (Numbers 1:1) states that G-d counts us frequently because he loves us, he is referring to the census that G-d instructed Moses to perform. Not a census that G-d took on His own. In any event, why would G-d need to take a census, does He not already know the number?

[8] Yalkut Shimoni, Shemos 241.

[9] This essay is loosely based on Kesav Sofer Derashos 8 Teves.

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