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CENSUS, BUT WHO'S COUNTING

by Eyal Feiler    
Torah from Dixie Staff Writer    

This week's Torah portion opens with a familiar scene. Hashem tells Moses to once again count the Jewish people in the desert: "From twenty years and above, all those who are capable of fighting, you should number them, you and Aaron" (Numbers 1:3).

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This week's Torah portion opens with a familiar scene. Hashem tells Moses to once again count the Jewish people in the desert: "From twenty years and above, all those who are capable of fighting, you should number them, you and Aaron" (Numbers 1:3).

According to Jewish law, however, while counting the people Moses had to follow specific Torah mandated guidelines. As explained in the Talmud (Tractate Yoma 22b), it is prohibited to conduct a census of the Jewish people by counting individuals directly (see Exodus 30:12). One reason provided by the Talmud is that Hashem blessed our forefather Abraham with many descendants, as many as the grains of sand, so it would be inappropriate to attempt to count his descendants. Just as grains of sand cannot be counted, so too the Jewish people are uncountable.

To that end, Rashi, the great 11th century French commentator, commenting on the above verse, explains that a direct census was not taken. Rather, each person contributed a half-Shekel coin, all of which were in turn counted to determine the number of people. Ramban, the great medieval commentator, takes a position similar to that of Rashi's, pointing out that the above verse uses the Hebrew term "tifkedu - to list or highlight" rather than the more common word "tisperu - to count".

Ramban offers three reasons for Hashem's command to count. First, Hashem wanted the Jewish people to have greater contact with Moses and Aaron. In a nation of millions, not everybody had the opportunity to encounter the great leaders on a daily basis. During the counting process each individual had an opportunity to meet Moses and Aaron, who personally made the count and collected the coins. Second, Moses needed to know the size of each tribe for military purposes as well as land rights once the Jews arrived in Israel. Finally, through the census Hashem's greatness and kindness to the Children of Israel was highlighted, since only seventy people came down with Jacob to Egypt and now there were more than 600,000 males encamped in the desert.

Ramban, however, raises an important question regarding the census. King David took a similar count of the Jewish people during his reign, and as a result, Hashem punished the people with a raging plague that wiped out 70,000 men. As the Talmud in Tractate Berachot states, King David was at fault. Surely as king of Israel he knew that Jewish law required him to count only by indirect means, so we must assume that he did so. Why then was he punished? King David had no real reason for counting the Jewish people. He only took the count to give himself the satisfaction of knowing that he was ruler over so many. But if this holds true and King David was the only one who committed the sin, then what did 70,000 men do to deserve death by plague?

Rabbi Yaakov Ruderman, the late rosh yeshiva (dean) and builder of the Yeshiva Ner Israel in Baltimore, explains that to answer the question we must first understand why the Torah forbids an unnecessary counting in the first place. Rabbeinu Bachya, a leading 14th century commentator, states that the danger we face in taking a census is that we are turning the group into a gathering of individuals rather than one cohesive unit. While together as a group, weaknesses of individual members are overshadowed by the strengths of others. However, when people are viewed as individuals, they lose the benefits they received from the strengths of the other members of the group. When King David counted the people for no reason, he was singling them out as individuals. Those who deserved to be punished for their sins were no longer protected by the group and were killed in the plague. When viewed as individuals, they were unable to stand alone on their own merits.

The census teaches us the power of a kehillah, or group. This lesson is one of the reasons we always try to pray with a minyan, or quorum of at least ten, since the power of the group is stronger than the individual. When we pray to Hashem without a minyan, we are judged individually based upon our own good deeds and not-so-good deeds. How many of us would be comfortable being judged daily on our own merits? However, when we pray to Hashem in a minyan, those who are more worthy protect the weaker individuals, making our prayers as a group much more effective. We should all strive to be among those who are meritorious.

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Eyal Feiler, an alumnus of Yeshiva Atlanta and a graduate of Yeshiva University, resides in New York.

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