Counting Everyone, Everyone Counts

  • Rav Yaakov Beasley






Counting Everyone, Everyone Counts


By Rabbi Yaakov Beasley





Our parasha begins a new book, Sefer Bamidbar, as follows:


And Hashem spoke unto Moshe in the wilderness of Sinai, in the Tabernacle of the congregation, on the first day of the second month in the second year after they came out of the land of Egypt, saying, “Take for yourself the sum of all the congregation of the children of Israel, after their families, by the houses of their fathers, with the number of their names, every male by their polls. From twenty years old and upward, all that are able to go forth to war in Israel, you and Aharon shall number them by their armies.”  (1:1-3)


Resuming the narrative thread from Sefer Shemot, the Torah describes Bnei Yisrael’s preparations before leaving Har Sinai, from which they had not moved after arriving there to receive the Torah exactly eleven months previously. Finally, having sinned with the Golden Calf and after the building of the Mishkan, they were ready to depart Sinai to inherit the land Hashem promised their fathers. 




The book begins with the census of the tribes conducted by Moshe and Aharon. Because of this, rabbinic literature gave this book the name “Sefer Pekudim,” or in English, the book of “Numbers.” The first chapter contains the count of each tribe and the aggregate total.


This is not the first census taken of Bnei Yisrael, as they had already been numbered prior to the erection of the Tabernacle (Shemot 30:11-16; 38:25-26).  Our parasha counts them again, and the Torah provides every detail (including the date: “on the first day of the second month [Iyar] in the second year” - one month after the erection of the Mishkan).  We immediately ask – why and for what purpose did the Torah include these minutiae? Can we find any moral purpose in them?


The Rashbam offers the following explanation for beginning with the census:


“Take the number of the entire congregation:” This was on account of the fact that they had to enter Eretz Yisrael and those from twenty years and upwards were eligible to go forth in the army into battle. For on the twentieth day of the second month the matter was broached, as it appears in Bamidbar 10:11,29: “We are journeying to the place which Hashem promised to give to you;” for this reason, the Holy One Blessed be He ordered them to be numbered at the beginning of this month. (commentary to 1:2)


According to this explanation, the census’s purpose was of a military nature - to determine the forces at Moshe’ disposal and to organize them for battle. This seems reasonable, especially since the census only applied to those who had reached the age of twenty, and receives added confirmation from the fact that the Levites were not numbered along with the rest of the tribes:


Only you shall not number the tribe of Levi, neither take the sum of them among the children of Israel. But you shall appoint the Levites over the Tabernacle of testimony, and over all the vessels thereof, and over all things that belong to it. They shall bear the Tabernacle, and all the vessels thereof; and they shall minister unto it, and shall encamp round about the Tabernacle.  (1:49-50)


Clearly, the Levites were not numbered because of their special role in the sacred service, which relieved them from military duties.


But a number of difficulties remain unexplained. If the Torah wished to inform us of the number of soldiers available to Moshe, why write every tribe’s population independently? The Ramban suggests three approaches to this problem, and in doing so, he attempts to reveal the moral lesson from the text:


It was necessary for the Torah to record the total number after giving the details because Moshe and Aharon had been commanded to ascertain the number of the people and the number of each tribe, for this was the manner of kings to number the people. But I have not understood the reason for this commandment, why God ordered it [i.e. to record the general total]. It was necessary to know the number of each tribe separately for the purpose of the arrangement of the camp according to standards, but why was it necessary to know the general number?  


Perhaps the idea was to make known His loving kindness unto them, that when their fathers went down to Egypt they numbered only 70 souls and now they were as the sand of the sea. And after every pestilence and plague He counts them in order to make known that though He wounds, His hands make whole again, in accordance with what our Sages said, “Out of an abundance of love for them, He numbers them frequently.”


Further, he that comes before the father of all the prophets [Moshe] and his brother, the consecrated of Hashem [Aharon], and is known to them by his name gains thereby merit and life… For they would place upon them their eye for good and beseech mercy for them: “May Hashem, the God of your fathers add unto you according to this a thousand times” and not diminish your number… I have further seen in Bamidbar Rabba on the text, “With the number of their names… by their polls as follows:  The Holy One Blessed be He ordered Moshe to number them in a manner that would confer honor and greatness on each one of them individually. Not that you should say to the head of the family, “How many are there in your family? How many children have you?” But rather all of them should pass before you in awe and with the honor due to them and you should number them.  That is what is meant when it states, “According to the number of names from the age of twenty years and upwards by their polls.”  


Perhaps in addition this was also the manner of kings when going to war. Now, Bnei Yisrael were ready to enter the land and do battle with the kings of the Amorites who were on the other side of the Jordan, as it is said, “We are journeying towards the place which Hashem has said;” and Moshe and the princes required to know the number of soldiers available… For the Torah does not rely on miracles that one should pursue a thousand, and this is the reason for the statement “all that are able to go forth to war in Israel.” (commentary on Bamidbar 1:45)


The Ramban offers three reasons, concluding with the strategic and military considerations that the Rashbam referred to. In emphasizing that we must not rely on miracles in conquering the land, but instead must make all the necessary preparations to engage the enemy, the Ramban is consistent with his understanding of the nature of the conquest of the Land. He regarded sending the spies into Israel as the correct approach, as the Torah does not advocate that we rely on miracles.


The first reason the Ramban mentions, probably indicating its primary importance, is that this census attests to the very miracle of our existence, although it speaks in the dry language of statistics and numbers. This idea is paramount in the verse we recite during the Seder night describing the miracle of the Exodus:


Your fathers went down into Egypt with threescore and ten persons; and now Hashem your God hath made you as the stars of heaven for multitude.  (Devarim 21:22)


Noting that most of the censuses took place after episodes of pestilence and plague, the Ramban also points to a moral of Jewish history: despite the suffering and persecution we have experienced, we have not succumbed.  In spite of everything, we continue to increase and multiply.  This idea is phrased in philosophical terms by Rabbeinu Bachya in his Chovot Ha-Levavot:


If someone will in these days([when the age of miracles is no more) seek a parallel to what took place in our ancient history [i.e., the miracles in Tanakh], let him look frankly at our status among the nations from the time of the exile and our relationships with them. In spite of the fact that we neither publicly nor privately fall in with their ways and they are aware of this, it is as He our Creator has promised us (Vayikra 26:44): “ And yet for all that, when they be in the land of their enemies, I will not cast them away, neither will I abhor them…” and it is said (Tehillim 124:1-2): “If it had not been Hashem who was on our side now may Israel say; If it had not been Hashem who was on our side, when men rose up against us…”




The Ramban’s second reason, that the census was intentionally personal and individual, “according to their polls,” impresses the idea that each and every soul is a unique specimen of divine creativity, and as such contains infinite value and worth. In the act of going to war, when each individual must submit their personal considerations to the success of the collective, this message gains extra poignancy. In our times, when armies number in the hundreds of thousands, if not millions, we tend to minimize the importance of the individual.  Each person is only a cog in the machine – if he perishes, another one always takes his place.  


In his Akedat Yitzchak, R. Yitzchak Arama calls attention to this same feature of the census:


They were not just like animals or material objects, but each one had an importance of his own like a king or priest and that indeed God had shown special love towards them and this is the significance of mentioning each one of them by name and status - for they were all equal and individual in status.


This message is also found in the Netziv, who describes the necessity to count Bnei Yisrael.  The Torah commands that only those who are “yotzei tzava” – those who go out to war- are to be counted, and the Netziv notes that the words “tzava” carries two meanings – “war” and “purpose”:


"....all those in Israel who are yotzei tzava" - Everyone has a tzava somewhere on earth. There are those whose tzava is only at home with his children, his work, etc. With respect to the Levites, the term is also used, as it is written (Bamidbar 4:3), "All who are subject to service" [kol ba le-tzava], since it was their task to carry the holy objects. Now the tzava for a man of war is different in two ways. First, he cannot restrict his tzava only to his own city, since he must go out and follow the winds of war where they may lead. Second, he cannot do this in isolation, but must join together with many others. Even a warrior cannot hold his own in battle for long if he is alone (unless he has miraculous powers, the likes of Shimshon). Therefore, the Torah states that they counted only men who were "yotzei tzava," that is, tzava for battle, and they counted only those who were "in Israel," that is, among their compatriots. Whoever did not feel he was adept at war was not counted and was of secondary importance [ill-suited] vis-a-vis this effort.

Because of this, the command was to count those "from twenty years old and upward," since, as we know from Pirkei Avot, ch.6, "At twenty a young man begins pursuit." In other words, in addition to strength, he is capable of pursuing [the enemy] with speed and agility, qualities need in war.