Bamidbar: Count for something

Rabbi Lazer Gurkow, | updated: 20:44

Rabbi Lazer Gurkow
Rabbi Lazer Gurkow
Rabbi Lazer Gurkow

G-d instructed Moses to take a census of the Jewish people in the desert. In all, G-d told Moses to count the Jews three times in a forty-year period. Rashi, the famed eleventh century biblical commentator, explained that G-d counts the Jews because He loves them.

This statement makes it sound like counting Jews is a good thing. Yet, anyone familiar with the way the census was performed knows that Moses did not count the Jews, instead he collected a half silver coin from each Jew and counted the coins. If counting Jews is a good thing, a sign of G-d’s love, why did Moses avoid counting the Jews and instead counted coins?

A Single Block
The truth is that counting Jews is a negative because it indicates that we are each separate from the other. I am one, you are one quite apart from me, and the third person is also one, quite apart from us both. If we gather in the same room, we will be three. But Jews are only separated on the surface, intrinsically, we are one. When you walk into a room, you don’t say there are 248 limbs here, you say there is one person here. So, when 600000 Jews gather, we should say, there is one Jew here.

If our intrinsic oneness would rise to the surface, we would be uncountable because we would be one. This is why we avoid counting Jews directly. The Jewish people are one thing, only coins are separate. Thus, Moses didn’t count people, he counted coins.

This reminds me of a story. A German tourist stopped A Jew, who was walking with his large family, and said that Jews should be less selfish and should bring fewer children into a world that is struggling to feed the hungry. The Jew looked the German in the eye and replied, “you make a good point, and I promise to consider it after I have six million children.”

Jewish children are not isolated individuals. Jewish children belong to a larger whole. Each is a member of a single block called six million. Even wider than that. Each is a member of the Jewish people at large.

This only exacerbates our earlier question. If counting Jews accentuates our separateness, why does Rashi insist that G-d counts us out of love. What love is there in separateness? Isn’t love cohesive?

Bodies and Souls
Rabbi Shlomo Yosef Zevin supplied a profound answer. He said that there are two kinds of counting. There is counting of bodies and counting of souls. We are a people by dint of our Torah, as Rabbi Sa’adyah Gaon wrote, “our nation is only a nation on account of the Torah.” When we embrace the Torah, the Torah embraces us and renders us a people.

Just like the soul units the entire body into a cohesive whole, so does the Torah unite the entire nation into a cohesive single unit. The Torah is the soul of the people. As a people, a single block, our bodies cannot be counted as sperate units because we are one. This is why Moses didn’t count bodies. He counted coins.

However, there is a deeper way of counting. There is the counting of souls. At first blush this sounds strange. If our bodies are merged as one through the Torah, our souls must certainly be a single entity under the influence of the Torah so what do we mean when we say that our souls can be counted?

What You Count For?
We mean to say that although the entire nation embraces the Torah and the Torah embraces the entire nation, no two individuals are the same. Each person is unique. One person excels at prayer, another excels at study, a third excels at charity, a fourth excels in empathy. Each has their strength. And even when two people share a strength, they each have it in unique measure. One has greater depth, another has more stability. One has more potential, another has more achievement.

This means that each person counts differently. Our sages taught that Moses on his own, was equal to 600 000 Jews. Yair, son of Manasseh, was equivalent to 36 of Israel’s greatest sages. Eliezer, the servant of Abraham, was equal to 318 warriors. Every Jew is a member of the single Jewish unit, but each Jew has his or her own measure.

We can’t know how much we count for and we certainly can’t know how much others count for. We don’t even know how much a good deed counts for. For example, if I give a hundred dollars to charity and my friend gives a hundred dollars, his deed might count for more than mine. Only G-d can know how much money he really has, how difficult it is for him to part with his money, how much or little regard he has for the recipient of our charity, etc. All this is considered when determining the measure of a deed. If we can’t measure the extent of a single deed, we surely can’t measure an entire Jew.

This is why Moses didn’t count souls. He only counted bodies. And because the bodies count as a single unit, he didn’t count the bodies. He counted coins. G-d, on the other hand, can count souls. G-d counts and measures the value of each Jewish soul. He does this because He loves us. He loves our good deeds, and He loves us. He measures each of us carefully and lovingly because he cherishes us all.

Across the World
Reading about the census of the Jewish people is a reminder of our oneness and cohesiveness. It is appropriate that we read about the census in such proximity to Shavuot, the festival during which we received the Torah at Sinai because our sages taught that at Sinai our entire nation was like one person with one heart.

It is doubly meaningful to read about the census this year because this Shabbat the diaspora and Israeli Jewish community will unite. Because the eighth and last day of Passover in the diaspora fell on Shabbat, diaspora Jews chanted a special Passover Torah reading that day. In Israel, where Passover only lasts for seven days, Israeli Jews chanted the Shabbat Torah reading on that day.

Ever since, the Israeli Jewish community was one Torah portion ahead of diaspora Jews. Last Shabbat, diaspora Jews read two Torah portions while Israeli Jews read only one. This allowed the diaspora Jewish community to catch up with the Israeli Jewish community. Which means that this Shabbat, all Jews around the world will read the same Torah portion again. And what will we read about? The census of the Jewish people, which as we discussed, highlights our oneness.








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