“Counting on the People of Israel”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this coming week’s parasha, parashat Bamidbar, the Jews are found in the wilderness of Sinai, on the first day of the second month, in the second year after their exodus from the land of Egypt.

G-d speaks to Moses and says: “Seh’uh et rosh kol ah’dat b’nei Yisrael l’mish’p’cho’tam, l’vait ah’votam, b’mispar shaymot, kol zachar l’gool’geh’loh’tam.” Count the entire assembly of the children of Israel according to their families, according to their fathers’ household, by the number of their names; count all males according to their heads. The census recorded in the Torah text serves the purpose of counting all males 20 years of age and up, who are to serve in the army of Israel.

Rashi, the foremost commentator on the bible (1040-1105), immediately notes, “Mee’toch chee’bah’tam l’fah’nav, moneh o’tam kol sha’ah.” Because of G-d’s great love of the Jewish people, He counts them again and again. G-d counted the people when they went out of Egypt, and again after the sin of the Golden Calf–to see how many remained after the sinners were punished. Now, when He is about to allow His Divine presence to rest among them, He counts them once more.

The counting process is long and arduous. It is an accountant’s dream and a rabbi’s nightmare. Going into excruciating detail for each tribe, the Torah describes how the tribes are counted by their numbers, according to their offspring, according to their families, according to their father’s houses, by the number of names, according to the head count, every male from 20 years of age, everyone who goes out to the army. It tells us that the tribe of Reuben’s numbers were 46,500. Shimon’s count was 59,300, followed by Gad, 45,650. Thus, the Torah continues repeating the sequence over and over for each of the twelve tribes, until it informs us that the total number of Israel’s soldiers was 603,550.

Just when we thought we were finally finished with the census, the Torah specifies that the tribe of Levi is to be counted separately. Then the Torah describes how the camp of Israel is to be structured, states the explicit place where each tribe is to be located around the Tabernacle, and once again repeats the total number of soldiers in each tribe. And if that weren’t enough, the Torah then describes the order of travel of the people in the wilderness. The parasha finally concludes with an exact counting of the Levites from 30 days old and upwards, a description of the redemption of the firstborn, and a litany of the specific tasks that the Levitic families perform in caring for the Tabernacle, the Mishkan. What is a rabbi to do to make this parasha interesting? Perhaps, go on vacation that week, and let a substitute cover for him.

Obviously, by emphasizing the detail, the Torah is trying to relate to us something important about the organizational structure of the Jewish people. Clearly, the message is that Judaism regards the family as the true center of Jewish life, to be fostered and strengthened. Conversely, if the family is threatened, the Jewish people will be threatened. It is that challenging reality that we are witnessing today, as we experience the breakdown of family life in society, and the consequent toll it is taking on the Jewish community. The structure, the order, the chain of command, the responsibilities–all of these elements are necessary for the successful perpetuation of our people and our nation.

While the numbers recorded in the parasha are dizzying, the specifications and accountings teach us a vital lesson. There were 603,550 soldiers in the army of Israel. If one of those soldiers was missing, the Jewish people could no longer be considered whole. Every single member of our nation is precious, and like a Torah scroll, if one letter is missing, the entire Torah scroll is invalidated. Similarly, if even one Jew is missing, then the entire Jewish people is reduced, and incomplete.

I’ve always been astounded by the special nature of the Jewish people, and how deeply they care about one another. Certainly, there are national and religious loyalties among other peoples and nations. But the bonds that bind Jews together seem to be particularly powerful. When the Moslem population of Bosnia was being massacred by the Christians, there was hardly a peep heard from the Moslem nations. In fact, that lack of response underscores that the uproar over the Palestinians is due more to anti-Semitism than it is to the political issues they raise. When Christians around the world are attacked, there is hardly an outcry from the Christian world. And there certainly seems to be a rather striking absence of concern on the part of African Americans for the masses of African people who are dying of Aids, or are being slaughtered in constant regional wars.

But, the Jewish people, whenever there is a threat to even a single Jew, there is an instantaneous distress expressed within the Jewish community, and almost always an immediate call to action. Think about the different causes to which the Jews responded over the last 50 years: Our people responded to save, resettle or provide medical care for the Holocaust survivors. The worldwide Jewish community rallied to intervene on behalf of the new State of Israel, to help the Jews of Syria, to liberate Jews of the former Soviet Union, to airlift the Ethiopian Jews to Israel. Whenever Jews were in need, Jewish efforts were swiftly on the spot to help.

The work of the Joint Distribution Committee, Otzar HaTorah, and other overseas efforts to care for needy and poor Jews is unparalleled. The ingathering of the exiles from the four corners of the earth and the welcoming of Jews into the State of Israel, all of this serves as a true expression of “pidyon sh’vu’yim,” the primary mitzvah of redemption of the captives. To redeem the captives is, after all, the only mitzvah for which we are allowed, in fact required, to sell a Torah scroll. If one letter of the Torah is missing, the entire Torah is invalidated. If one person from our people is missing, our Jewish people are reduced and are incomplete.

That is why it is important for us to recall at this point, Ron Arad, the Israeli navigator who parachuted out of his plane over Lebanon in August 1986, and has been missing ever since. We recall the other Israeli POWs and MIAs who have been captured and/or are missing: Zachariah Baumel, Yekutiel Katz, Zvi Feldman, Omer Swede, Binyamin Avitan, Elchanan Tannenbaum and the Jews who are presently imprisoned in Iran. We pray that they are all still alive, and will soon return in good health.

The counting of the Jewish people may be a rabbi’s nightmare, but each Jew is precious. And counting is what really keeps our people together and united.

May you be blessed.