“Counting on the People of Israel”
(updated and revised from Bamidbar 5762-2002)

by, Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

As this week’s parasha, parashat Bamidbar, opens, 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, saying (Numbers 1:2), שְׂאוּ אֶת רֹאשׁ כָּל עֲדַת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לְמִשְׁפְּחֹתָם, לְבֵית אֲבֹתָם, בְּמִסְפַּר שֵׁמוֹת כָּל זָכָר לְגֻלְגְּלֹתָם , “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 is intended to provide an accurate count of the number of males, 20 years of age and up, who are eligible to serve in the army of Israel.

Rashi, immediately notes, מִתּוֹךְ חִבָּתָן לְפָנָיו, מוֹנֶה אוֹתָם כָּל שָׁעָה , that because of G-d’s great love for 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, that the Al-mighty is about to cause His Divine presence to dwell among them, He counts the people once more.

The biblical record of the counting process is long and arduous– 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 informs 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 done with the census, the Torah specifies that the tribe of Levi is to be counted separately.

Following the count of the Levites, the Torah describes how the camp of Israel is to be structured, stating the explicit location where each tribe is to encamp around the tabernacle, and once again repeating 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 upward, a description of the redemption of the firstborn, and a litany of the specific tasks that the Levitic families were to 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 his assistant, (if he’s lucky enough to have one), cover for him.

Obviously, by emphasizing the detail, the normally brief Torah is trying to relate to us something vital and essential about the organizational structure of the Jewish people.

The message clearly 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 the general society, and the consequent toll it is taking on the Jewish community. The structure, the order, the chain of command, the responsibilities–all 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. Each one was essential. If one of those soldiers went 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 invalid. Similarly, if even a single Jew is absent, then the entire Jewish people is reduced and incomplete.

I’ve always been extremely impressed by the special nature of the Jewish people, and how deeply they care about one another.
There is a well know story told about the trial of Mendel Beilis 1913, a Russian Jew who was accused of ritually murdering a Christian child. The accusation was later proven to be false, but there was an uproar throughout the Jewish world.

Many observers were perplexed by the universal show of support among Jews for Mendel Beilis, and the outrage in the Jewish community at the blatant anti-Semitism. Rabbi Yehuda Meir Shapiro, who was a young rabbi at the time, explained that the Hebrew word אָדָם “Adam,” (human), found in Ezekiel 34:31, is said by the rabbis of the Talmud (Yevamot 61a), to apply only to Jews. Other nations are referred to as “Bnai Adam” (children of humankind). The Hebrew word “Adam” is a singular noun, and has no plural form. Explained Rabbi Shapiro, this underscores that all the Jewish people are a single body, one person. When one part of the body is hurt, the entire person is in pain. That, says Rabbi Shapiro, explains the universal outcry in the Jewish community over Mendel Beilis, because we are all a single body.

Consequently, whenever there is a reported threat to even a single Jew, there is instantaneous distress expressed within the Jewish community, and almost always, an immediate call to action. Think of the many different causes to which the Jews have responded over the past 75 years: Our people hastened to save, resettle and/or provide medical care for the Holocaust survivors. The worldwide Jewish community rallied to intervene on behalf of the new State of Israel, they paid huge ransoms to the Syrian government to allow the Syrian Jews to leave, they held massive rallies and protests to liberate the Jews of the former Soviet Union, tens of thousands of Ethiopian Jews were airlifted to Israel, and the rescue continues to this very day. Whenever Jews were in need, Jewish efforts were galvanized swiftly on the spot to help.

The work of the many Jewish international aid organizations and the overseas efforts to care for needy and poor Jews, is unprecedented. The ingathering of the exiles from the four corners of the earth and the welcoming of Jews into the State of Israel, is a true expression of פִּדְיוֹן שְׁבוּיִים , 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 scroll is missing, the entire Torah is invalid. If one person from our people is missing, the Jewish people are reduced, and are incomplete.

The recent tragedy in Meron, where 45 Jews lost their lives in the horrible accident during the Lag ba’Omer celebrations, underscores the fact that the Jewish people are really one family. Jews worldwide felt the individual losses as their own.

The Torah’s counting of the Jewish people may be a rabbi’s nightmare, but each Jew is precious. And, counting them, like precious jewels, underscores the infinite worth of each Jew.

May you be blessed.

Please note: The wonderful festival of Shavuot commemorating the giving of the Torah at Sinai 3333 years ago, is observed this year on Sunday evening, May 16th, and continues through Tuesday night, May 18, 2021.