“Counting the Jews, Again!”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Bamidbar, G-d speaks to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the Tent of Meeting, on the first day of the second month of the second year after the Exodus from Egypt.

The Al-mighty commands Moses (Numbers 1:2): שְׂאו אֶת רֹאשׁ כָּל עֲדַת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לְמִשְׁפְּחֹתָם, לְבֵית אֲבֹתָם–בְּמִסְפַּר שֵׁמוֹת, כָּל זָכָר לְגֻלְגְּלֹתָם, Take a census of the entire assembly of the Children of Israel according to their families, according to their fathers’ household, by number of the names, every male according to their head count.

This is the third time that G-d commands that the people should be counted. The first time the people were counted (Exodus 12:37) was when they left Egypt. Again they were counted (Exodus 38:26) after the sin of the Golden Calf, to see how many survived the punishment of the idolaters. They are now counted for a third time, when G-d is about to rest His Divine Presence among the people.

The Ramban suggests three reasons why G-d wanted the people counted. 1. To confirm G-d’s deep love for the Jewish People through their amazing population growth over 210 years–70 people originally came down with Jacob from Canaan to Egypt and there now were almost two million people. 2. By having Moses and Aaron and the leaders of the tribes personally count the people, the Israelites learned who their leaders were, and, even for a short while, had the exclusive personal attention of Moses and Aaron. 3. Had sin of the leaders who were sent to scout out the Land of Israel not occurred (Numbers 13 and 14), the people would have gone directly into the land of Israel, and therefore, a military census was needed.

From just the few opening verses of parashat Bamidbar that describe the counting, we learn the very special meanings and nuances of the methods employed in taking a census of the Jewish people. In Numbers 1:2-3, G-d tells Moses to take a census of the entire assembly of the Children of Israel, according to their families, according to their fathers’ household, by number of the names, every male according to their head count. From twenty years of age and up–-everyone who goes out to the army in Israel–-you shall count them according to their armies, you and Aaron. The Torah, in Numbers 1:4, then states, וְאִתְּכֶם יִהְיוּ, אִישׁ אִישׁ לַמַּטֶּה–אִישׁ רֹאשׁ לְבֵית אֲבֹתָיו הוּא, And with you [to assist in counting] shall be one man from each tribe, a man who is a leader of his father’s household.

The Biblical commentators carefully examine and analyze this verse, which contains many important guidelines to understanding the nature of Jewish leadership and Jewish family life. The M’lechet Mach’sheh’veht argues that words of the Hebrew text actually imply that the heads of their families’ households must be accepted and admired by their own families. Jewish leaders must be authentic–people who are privately what they appear to be publicly. There is no room for arrogance or for acting publicly in a different way than one acts privately.

The Ya’arot Devash has a slightly different take on that concept. He states that a person who is רֹאשׁ לְבֵית אֲבֹתָיו, the head of his father’s household, and is accepted as a leader by his own family, he is one who can truly be a leader of the tribes of Israel.

Similarly, the Zion Hillel, cited in Iturei Torah, argues that only a person who is embraced and lauded in his own home, in his own environment, can be a leader of the Jewish people.

The Korban Oni interprets the verse’s use of the word,ַמַּטֶּה , staff, to mean “tribe,” to teach that only “a leader who considers himself a staff–modest, humble” is suitable to serve as the head of his father’s household. The Zohar on Genesis 1:22 similarly states, “He who is small, is truly great.”

The Kli Yakar notes that use of the words אִישׁ and הוּא in the verse, אִישׁ רֹאשׁ לְבֵית אֲבֹתָיו הוּא (a man who is a leader of his father’s household), means that every person who was the head of a tribe, needed to consider himself to be not so much a leader, but rather a regular member of the tribe. Each one had to behave like an אִישׁ, (a man) just like every other member of the tribe, even though he was a leader, and had authority over the masses.

The Luach Erez notes that the words,אִישׁ  אִישׁ, literally mean, a man from each tribe. The doubling of the word אִישׁ, implies that leaders should be one man who is equal to two men. He must be committed to both his own family life and to public life. Public life should never cause leaders to ignore or neglect their wives and children. By blending these two roles, one becomes two.

The Dan Midaniel notes that the verse, אִישׁ רֹאשׁ לְבֵית אֲבֹתָיו הוּא, seems to have an additional word, הוּא, meaning “he.” Every man, he must be the head of his father’s household.

Other commentators see in the use of the word “he” a person who is either entirely good or thoroughly bad, like King Ahaseureus, bad from beginning to end, or Abraham, who was righteous from beginning to end.

Very often, says the Dan Midaniel, when a person is appointed to a position of leadership and power, the new leader frequently gets carried away, forgets his brothers and his former friends, and is oftentimes transformed into an entirely different person. Therefore, the Torah emphasizes, regarding the tribal princes, אִישׁ רֹאשׁ לְבֵית אֲבֹתָיו הוּא, even after these men were made the heads of their father’s households, they always sought to be the same person they were originally. Without glorying over the community or taking advantage of the Holy Nation, they remained genuine people, from beginning to end.

May you be blessed.