Sefer Bamidbar - The Book of Pekudim

  • Harav Aharon Lichtenstein



Chazal refer to Sefer Bamidbar as Chumash ha-Pekudim.  How is this descriptive of the sefer and how is it relevant to us?  There are three distinct meanings of the word pekudim that will help us clarify Chazal’s intent.


The first meaning of pekuda is “enumeration;” in Modern Hebrew, the term for census is mifkad.   At the beginning of the sefer, we read of the census of the entire nation, and the counting of the population is repeated in Parashat Pinchas.  One census enumerates those who left Egypt, while the other counts those who were to enter Eretz Yisrael in the fortieth year in the desert.  Thus, there are two “pekudim” in the sefer.  Sefer Bamidbar is the only sefer in which a census is presented.


A second possible meaning is “an order;” in Modern Hebrew, the word pekuda means a charge or command.  Pekudim are those who are commanded, ordered, or charged.  This definition implies more participation on the part of Bnei Yisrael.  Inanimate objects can be counted.  However, to speak of an order or a charge is to speak of a confrontation, in the positive sense; only a human being can be given an order, and a command emanates from someone with greater power.  This meaning of “Pekudim” reflects human relationships and a particular human dimension.


The third sense of the root p.k.d.  brings us back to a non-personal or impersonal impact.  The root implies that attention is paid, that someone is mindful of something or someone else.  This is the meaning of the term in the end of Sefer Shemot (38:21): “Eileh pekudei ha-mishkan.” According to many, this phrase refers to inanimate objects, the vessels of the mishkan, which must be attended to and properly designated.  Special status is accorded to them. 


Similarly, the phrase “Hashem pakad” means in some sense that God was mindful of or related to something: “Va-Hashem pakad et Sarah ka-asher amar” (And God “remembered” Sarah, as He had said).  The word pakad is utilized in the Zikhronot section on Rosh Ha-Shana, but it does not mean memory in the purely cognitive sense.  Instead, it involves an emotional element, a meeting between one attending to and the person or object being attended to.  We are not afraid that God will “forget” us but that He will ignore us; this is the gist of Zikhronot. 


This meaning is an interesting contrast with enumeration.  One may count in a purely technical manner, but “Hashem pakad” implies much more than that; it is not simply counting but taking note.  The word “pakad” is not always used in a positive sense; in the context of the sin of the golden calf, it implies that God took note of the transgression and will punish the Jewish People for it.  Nevertheless, it describes a relationship, which is of critical importance. 


I believe that all three ideas are relevant to our own spiritual existence.


What is the thrust of the enumeration? What is the purpose of a census? On the most basic level, the purpose is collective.  How many people are there? What are the resources for the army, for the economy, for society?  We are taking stock, measuring provisions.  This is an important function, but it entails a problematic aspect as well: the individual is totally subsumed, almost obliterated, in the hands of the system and government.  He is taken into account and enumerated purely as a number. 


It seems that the reason that the Torah forbade direct counting of Bnei Yisrael is the awareness that the individual is reduced to anonymity when counted among a mass of people.  On the one hand, there is a collective whose power is in its numbers; according to the Netziv, the numbers listed in our parasha were rounded off to equal the number that they needed to achieve.  On the other hand, each individual counts.  The story of the deaths of Nadav and Avihu is interjected into the parasha despite its apparent irrelevance to the census.  The Torah was afraid that in the attempt to count the numbers, even the gifted individuals would be ignored.  By mentioning two individuals, the Torah teaches us that every person is significant, even when dealing with a great mass of people and even when counting for the public good.


Based on the third meaning of the term that we noted, every person is a pikadon in a sense; every person is subject to an interactive relationship, whether with friends, family, or God.  Every individual interacts with and relates to those around him. 


Both of these senses meld into the last sense, that of charge.  We are counted, we are related to, and we are commanded.  Standards are set and one is granted responsibility and opportunity.  Every person has the responsibility to determine the nature of his life.  This is part of the meaning of “Va-Hashem pakad et Sarah;” He gave her responsibility.  This is a direct corollary of God’s chessed; He directs us to realize our potential. 


In this sense, we are “pekudim” every day.  “Every day, a voice is emitted from Har Sinai and says, ‘Woe to those who have Torah and do not value it’” (Avot 6:2).  Benign neglect of responsibility, and not only violation of a prohibition, is unacceptable.  The majority of commands given to the Bnei Noach are prohibitions they must avoid, but Bnei Yisrael are commanded to perform positive mitzvot as well; God grants us greater responsibility. 


Thus, there are different senses of “pekudim” that apply to us.  We are counted as part of a nation, but every individual counts.  We are commanded as a nation to be holy - a “mamlekhet kohanim ve-goy kadosh” - and we are commanded as individuals to be holy: kedoshim tihiyu is addressed to individual.  Finally, we are beneficiaries of the tools to enable us to build ourselves spiritually. 


A Jew is always counted, always charged, always attended to.  There are times that we wish we would be left alone, but a Jew is never left alone.  The Jew is “called.”  You cannot sit on the sidelines, even if you have a box seat; you must be on the playing field.  Jewish life is bound by specific halakhic guidelines and involves living a life of command.  Some people like to live laid-back lives and not listen to too many orders, but to be a Jew means to be always ready. 


This is all the more true of a ben Torah.  One should not imagine that one can only be a good Jew by being a yeshiva bochur, but the demands and challenges, the pekudot, are more present for the ben Torah.  A voice asks from Sinai, “Are you learning?”  There are constraints on our time and ability to learn, but placing value and importance on the study of Torah does not conflict with anything.  Part of what should be gained in yeshiva is an appreciation for Torah, even if we don’t or won’t always have the opportunity to learn as much as we would like.  Part of the pekuda, part of our charge, is that we have the desire, the longing to learn.  That desire is what we want, beyond anything, for our students to take away with them – the desire to live a life in accordance with Torah in its fullest and richest sense.  We must give expression to our love and commitment to Torah.  We must be worthy of being the object of God’s attention, God’s pekuda.


(This sicha was delivered to overseas students on the 26th of Iyar 5767 [May 14, 2007].)