“That There Be No Plague among Them When You Number Them”

  • Harav Mosheh Lichtenstein


This shiur is dedicated le-zekher nishmot Amelia Ray and Morris Ray
on the occasion of their tenth yahrtzeits
by their children Patti Ray and Allen Ray


Adapted by Binyamin Fraenkel

Translated by Kaeren Fish


Counting the people – yes or no?

Our parasha opens with a command:

“And the Lord spoke to Moshe, saying: When you take (ki tisa) the sum of Bnei Yisrael by their number (lifkudeihem), then every man shall give a ransom for his soul to the Lord, when you number them (bifkod otam), that there be no plague among them when you number them. This they shall give: every one that passes among them that are numbered, half a shekel according to the shekel of the Sanctuary (a shekel is twenty gera); half a shekel shall be the offering of the Lord.” (Shemot 30:11-12)

Rashi cites the midrash:

“‘When you take the sum’ … When you wish to obtain their total number, to know how many they are, do not count them by person; rather, let each one give a half-shekel, and count the shekels, and you will know their number. ‘That there be no plague among them’ – for a total number is something that the evil eye can control, and then they are smitten by plague, as we find in the days of David.”

In other words, when counting Bnei Yisrael there is some danger involved, and therefore they must be counted using the half-shekel coins.

            On the other hand, the Gemara offers a midrash that seems to suggest the opposite:

“R. Abbahu taught: Moshe said to the Holy One, blessed be He, ‘Master of the world, how will the honor of Israel be uplifted?’ He answered him, ‘Through [the command,] When you take the sum…’” (Bava Batra 10b)

This tells us that the half-shekel census not only need not cause harm to Bnei Yisrael, but has the power to uplift them.

Risk and hope

How are these two midrashim to be reconciled? The two sources appear to present the risk and the potential entailed in the census. The risk is not difficult to understand: the act of counting people can turn them into mere numbers, statistics, data. This is the opposite of what the census is meant to accomplish, as the Ramban explains elsewhere:

“‘You shall number them’ (tifkedu otam) – this matter of ‘pekida’ (numbering) means remembering and taking care of something, as in, ‘And God remembered (pakad) Sara, as He had said’ (Bereishit 21:1), and this is the meaning of this term wherever it appears: not one of them will escape My attention. It is also related to the idea of ‘pikadon’ (a pledge), because His guardianship and providence is spread over them. When God commands that Israel be counted, he says, ‘tifkedu otam,’ hinting that they should not be physically numbered, but rather that they should give a half-shekel as a ransom for their souls, and through that God will watch over them and their number will be known.” (Ramban, Bamidbar 1:2)

The numbering of Bnei Yisrael is supposed to be a ‘remembering’ of sorts, not just an arrival at some numerical figure. This idea is further supported by the fact that the text notes the census being conducted ‘le-gulgelotam’ (‘by head’), i.e., individually. Moshe does not ask the head of each household or the head of each tribe how many people he has under him; rather, he counts the entire family and the entire tribe, entailing a personal encounter with each individual.

Plague strikes when people are treated as numbers, and therefore a census entails danger. On the other hand, the process also offers a special platform for personal encounters, and Moshe is therefore commanded to undertake the census, which will enhance Israel’s glory. The solution that the text offers, to prevent a situation whereby people are counted as part of a total sum, such that their individuality is erased, is to count their half-shekels. This emphasizes that a person is encountered in his own right.

Sterile medicine, worn-out teachers

The dilemma of population data vs. individual worth has intensified with modernity and especially with the progress of industry. Progress requires data, in which great masses of people are treated as numbers, their individual and human worth irrelevant to the tasks. Capitalism, with its view of the products of human effort as nameless, faceless capital, may advance the world economically, but at the same time it erases the human dimension.

Let us consider two examples. A medical procedure is “sterile” – seemingly removed from the patient himself. A delicate surgical procedure is performed while the patient is anesthetized; no one speaks with him, listens to him or interacts with him in any way. But in fact medicine can be conducted on a human level. Rabbi Dr. Avraham Steinberg used to say a “Mi She-Berakh” prayer for patients before operating on them, thereby strengthening and empowering the human and spiritual dimension.

In the educational world, too, a person may enter the teaching profession with great aspirations, but become worn out with time. Teachers can come to view their pupils as mere addresses for information and knowledge that must be transferred, rather than as people whose spiritual world must be strengthened and enriched.

Likewise, business partners, salespeople, etc., may come to view the people in their environment as mere objects. Such phenomena exist in day-to-day life, too. A person travelling on a bus may treat the driver as part of the general décor, appreciating him as a human being only in the wake of a traumatic episode, such as a terror attack.

The Torah teaches the importance of individualized personal attention – even when performing a seemingly mechanical action, devoid of human emotion. Counting people presents us with the challenge of transforming them from a sum, over which ‘the evil eye has control,’ to a more profound human appreciation, which ultimately ‘uplifts the honor of Israel.’

(This sicha was delivered on leil Shabbat parashat Ki Tisa 5774 [2014].)