Parshat Bamidbar: Like Grains Of Sand…

Zev Hurwitz, Opinion Editor

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In the early months of this year, hundreds of advertisements were plastered around Los Angeles advocating that residents fill out their 2010 Census forms. “How can we know how many hospitals to build if we don’t know how many people we have?” one billboard poses to passersby on Fairfax Blvd. A constitutional requirement, the United States Census gathers population information every decade. The findings influence Federal decisions regarding distribution of funds, roads, housing and political voice.

With none of these benefits being part of Bnei Yisrael’s social structure as they wander the desert, why is it necessary for Moshe, to once again count the people? Sefer Bamidbar opens by discussing the procedure and findings of the most recent Israelite census. “Take a census of the entire assembly of Bnei Yisrael… every male according to their head count.” (Bamidbar 1:2)

The above passage continues with specifying every male twenty through sixty who “goes out into the Tzavah, the legions. One possibility is the census planned to discover how many men were able to participate in the periodic wars that BneiYisrael was involved in. The Ramban holds the opinion that the census was necessary to emphasize the astonishing population growth of the people since they had been a fleeting nation of only seventy at the end of Bereshit.

Bnei Yisrael’s might cannot and should not be figured by use of a head count. Countless times in Jewish history are the Jews the “underdogs” who still manage to overcome their enemies with the aid of Hashem. For that reason, Jews are traditionally not counted as 1, 2, 3. Often times they will be counted by their shoes or kippot or as simply as “not 1, not 2, not 3” and so on.

The Jews in the desert were counted by “donation” of one half-shekel to the Mishkan, Tabernacle. But why is the extra step to count always taken in Judaism?

The Talmud explains that the prohibition of head-counting Jews comes from a biblical statement. “The number of Bnei Yisrael will be like the sand of the sea which cannot be measured.” (Hosea 2:1)

Because it would be foolish to attempt to count the grains of sand, as it is nearly impossible, it is also impossible to capture the essence of a Jew just by calling him by a number.

Bnei Yisrael’s census may not have been able to estimate the spiritual worth of the people, but Hashem’s eternal love for the people will always know the true value of a Jewish person.

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