Judaism: Counting the People
The Book of Vayikra concludes with the verse "these are the commandments that God commanded Moses to the children of Israel on Mount Sinai" (Vayikra 27:34) and the Book of Devarim opens with the words "these are the words that Moses spoke to all of Israel on the banks of the Jordan in the desert plain" (Devarim 1:1). In the middle the Book of Bemidbar starts in Sinai and ends with the Jewish people in Arvot Moav which is the final stop in the desert before they enter the Land of Israel.
In this time the Jewish people have succeeded to change and mature from a band of slaves who are not sure of themselves and their future to a strong nation who are ready to enter the Land and conquer it. The Book of Bemidbar is a description of the journey to nationhood. The book skillfully crafts together commandments with a narrative that describes the complexity of forming a nation. Not all goes according to plan; an opposition rises against Moses's leadership, some try to draw the nation backwards and the nation needs to accept those of the periphery such as the Nazir and the unfaithful wife.
The book is called "Torat HaPekudim" the Account of the Countings, and this name contains the secret for building a successful nation. One reason for this name in the plural, Countings, is that our Parshah contains two separate counts. First the people were counted “From the age of twenty, all those that went to fight.” (Bemidbar 1:3)
But the tribe of Levi was not included in this count, "but the tribe of Levi were not counted amongst them.” (ibid. 47) Rather, “count the tribe of Levi each male from the age of one month and over.” (ibid. 3 15) This requirement that the Leviim were to be enumerated from such a young age necessitated a special method on the part of Moses. In the words of the Midrash. “Moses said to God ‘You asked me to count them from one month, what am I to do? Should I enter their houses to reckon each new born infant?’ God replied ‘You do your job and I will do Mine’ Moses stood at the entrance to the tents of the Leviim, and a heavenly voice proclaimed the number of children in the tent.” (Rashi on Bemidbar 3:16) Why was this miracle necessary and why were the Leviim counted differently?
Rav Kook explains that each nation exists and survives on the basis of the strength of two entities. A nation must have a national infrastructure. In order to develop it must have an economic structure, and political system, an army and military might. Without these elements a nation will eventually be swallowed up by its neighbours or other conquerors. The modern example of this is the Tibetan Buddhists who have a great ideal and philosophy but were unable to prevail against the Chinese attacks on them.
But this aspect of a nation alone is also not enough. Many nations in the course of history have possessed strong armies and political systems, such as the Roman Empire. Yet, somehow, they have disappeared, become extinct, and eventually left the world’s stage. A strong infrastructure alone holds no guarantee that a nation will survive. A nation must possess the ability to defend itself but also the reason to do so.
This is true of any community and tribe, but how much more so is it relevant to Am Yisrael. The Jewish people are known to be giants of the spirit. This is seen through our huge contribution to general philosophy and ethics as much as through our religious endeavours in matters closer to the heart of Am Yisrael. Yet this in itself is not enough to form the Jewish nation. Judaism is not only a religion, but it is the basis of a nation, Am Yisrael, the Jewish people. Therefore, it is imperative that the nation develop both aspects. We need giants of the spirit, but we are also in need of champions of the physical.
The Leviim were to serve in the Beit Hamikdash on a full time basis, and to decide on matters dealing with ritual purity. They represented the Divine side of affairs, they were the spirit of Am Yisrael. The rest of the people were to be involved in more national affairs. They were to toil the land and develop the economy. They were to become kings and ministers and decide in political matters. And they were to become soldiers and defend the nation against outside attack on all sides.
Sometimes these two aspects of the nation were pitted against each other. Korach declared "all are holy and God is among them" (Bemidbar 16:3) charging to annul the differences between the sections of the nation. This appears positive unless we begin to consider who would fight if everyone was invested in the holy and who would give the spirit to the people if everyone were to be involved only in the physical?
This argument still remains today and we find sections of the Jewish people who degrade the importance of Torah study while others credit no importance to the physical defense of the people and the Land. We must learn and teach a fusion and a place for each ideal in order to create a complete nation in our Land.
Torah MiTzion (see their dynamic website) was established in 1995 with the goal of strengthening Jewish communities around the globe and infusing them with the love for Torah, the Jewish People and for the State of Israel. Over the past eighteen years Torah MiTzion has recruited, trained and dispatched more than one thousand 'shlichim' (emissaries) to Jewish communities in countries spanning five continents and impacted Jewish communities with an inspiringmodel of commitment to both Judaism and Zionism.
[Rav Gideon is a regular lecturer at the Beit Midrash Boker in Baka weekly learning program Thursday mornings at the Nitzanim Synagogue in Jerusalem]