A project in memory of Baruch Leib HaKohen b. Mordechai Yidel ve-Dobba Chaya.

The Downside of Exactness

At the beginning of this week’s parsha, Moshe Rabbenu is told to take a half-shekel from each male member of the Jewish people over the age of twenty, in order to get a population count. On the words ולא יהיה בהם נגף, Rashi says that coins were used to avoid a plague, since the evil eye comes when people are counted. As proof, he refers to David, whose count of the people brought pestilence. Rashi repeats that on 30;15, where the Torah refers to the money as atonement for their souls, and Rashi explains that the atonement will help forestall a plague.

He does not elaborate why or how counting the people directly brings a plague; the reference to David perhaps offers some insight. II Shmuel 24;1 tells us that Hashem’s wrath towards the Jews expressed itself in luring David to count the people. Yoav, his general, demurs at David’s order, saying (verse 3) “let Hashem increase the people multiple times, a hundred times, and my master David’s eyes see it happening, why does my master the king want this?”

Yoav seems to feel that counting would get in the way of Hashem’s multiplying the people, although it’s not obvious why that should be. We could find out that there are 173,478 people and then Hashem could multiply that however many times Hashem wanted. There seems to be an assumption here that once something is counted, measured, well-defined, Hashem’s blessings cannot reach it in the same way. Ta’anit 9b seems to make a similar point about the harvest, saying that as long as it hasn’t been counted, we can pray for it to be blessed; once it’s been defined, weighed, measured, it is what it is.

When the plague comes after David forces Yoav to go ahead, that might be the flip side. For as long as people (or produce) are uncounted, and Hashem can work behind the scenes to give blessing, Hashem can also protect them unwarrantedly from disaster. Once counted and well-defined, Hashem’s protection can no longer be behind the scenes. Or, taking it a step further, perhaps the more exactly we have been counted and accounted, the more our flaws are laid bare, and plagues that we deserve (as a nation) cannot be held at bay. That would be why the Torah would have us be counted through an atoning vehicle, a donation to the Mishkan that then supports the daily sacrifices that also help atone for our sins.

Before we’re well-defined, I’m suggesting, our being an undifferentiated mass leaves room for Hashem to give us blessing without it being seen, and it lets Hashem help us avoid the consequences of our actions. (That assumes that we, as a nation, often deserve worse than we get, a whole different topic we don’t have space for here).

The Upside of Exactness

If that were the whole story, we should never count the people. Yet Rashi to verse 16 sees Hashem’s interest in counting the Jews in the aftermath of the sin of the Golden Calf as an expression of Divine love and concern. Since Jews were killed in the plague-reaction to that sin, Hashem counts the people, as a loving shepherd does when an attack of wild animals reduces his flock. For Rashi, knowing exactly how many are left shows Hashem’s concern with each Jew.

Counting is a two-sided event, it seems. There’s the worry about what it produces—an awareness of each member of the population that prevents unseen blessing and can lead to plague—but also its expression of Divine love and concern.

Noticing this leads me to wonder whether this might also explain the round numbers given in these counts—all the tribes have numbers in the hundreds, or fifties. Are we meant to understand that every tribe in the Jewish people had such round numbers? Or did the count dispense with more exact numbers, even when using half-shekels, for these reasons?

(An old classmate, Joshua Berman, now a professor at Bar-Ilan, recently published an article suggesting that the census numbers in the Torah were also exaggerated, for other reasons. I have no idea of whether he’s right, but if the Torah was inexact even in that count, it would help this discussion—Hashem tells Moshe to use a half-shekel and still not to be too exact).

Breaking the Tablets and Jews Who Have Abandoned Hashem

32;19 tells us that Moshe threw down the tablets. Rashi, on the words וישלך מידיו, offers his understanding of Moshe’s thought process: if Pesach is one mitzvah yet the Torah prohibited a בן נכר, someone who had abandoned mitzvot, from participating, that has to be all the more so true of the entirety of Torah. If all the Jews have left God’s service (as shown by their worshipping the Golden Calf), Moshe said to himself, how could I give them the Torah?

Several assumptions here sound surprising in our times, but were elementary to Rashi. First, that a nonobservant Jew could not participate in the Paschal sacrifice. Imagine if the Beit HaMikdash were rebuilt, and the Chief Rabbinate or whoever was charged with enacting the ceremony according to proper halachic standards announced an observance threshold to be allowed to be part of the first annual Korban Pesach!

More interesting to me is that Rashi sees Moshe Rabbenu as expanding that logic to the right to partake of Torah at all. The exclusion of nonbelievers (and certain violations of halachah inherently broadcast disbelief) isn’t a detail of the laws of the Paschal sacrifice, it’s revelatory about Torah in general! Since Rashi accepts the view that Hashem agreed with Moshe’s decision to break the Tablets, it would seem that Rashi saw Moshe’s logic here as correct.

Today, we deny that lack of observance and lack of faith carry the same meaning as in Moshe’s time (or Rashi’s). But it is, to me, an important reminder of the centrality of faith and observance to being allowed to participate fully as a Jew.

Jews’ Original Sin

When Hashem accedes to Moshe’s pleas and refrains from giving the Jews their deserved punishment for the sin of the Golden Calf, 32;34 quotes Hashem as saying that ביום פקדי, on the day I call them to account, I will account this sin against them as well. Before we get to Rashi, we should pause to note the premise of what will follow: the Jewish people (with the exception of the Levi’im) deserved destruction for the sin of the Golden Calf.

Especially since only 3000 Jews were killed for active worship, it seems many, many others were being held culpable for watching without protesting. Yet that too was enough for the people as a whole to deserve destruction. It’s a point to stress because many people today would have a hard time accepting the possibility that a reasonable (let alone appropriate) response to one sin, however bad, could be national destruction.  That’s true of lesser sins as well—many people would have a problem with the Torah’s assigning capital punishment to various sins, such as willful Shabbat violation, or various sexual sins.

Here, Rashi understands Hashem to be telling Moshe that Hashem’s not destroying the people was not a foregoing of their deserved punishment, it was His deciding to spread that punishment throughout history. Each time Hashem punishes the Jews for some other sin, a bit of the deserved punishment for the Golden Calf will be included. Jews bear lasting leftover guilt for this first national sin that we committed, so close upon the heels of the Giving of the Torah. Hashem is letting us work it off in installments, but if we ever decide that we’re all fine with Hashem, good to go, this eternal debt should remind us that that’s not true.

The Primacy of Privacy

For the second tablets, Hashem tells Moshe to come up the mountain alone. On 34;3, the words ואיש לא יעלה עמך, Rashi comments that the first tablets by virtue of having been given flashily, loudly, and in front of a large group, were affected by the evil eye. That’s why there’s no better quality than צניעות.

This is the second time Rashi mentioned the evil eye in this parsha (of nine in the Torah commentary). Before it was counting that brought it, here it’s drawing attention to ourselves. The radar of the world, as it were, includes the potential for bad outcomes.

The key to flying under that radar is צניעות which, when translated as modesty, is often taken as limited to women’s clothing. To avoid being that narrow, I think it’s better to translate it as referring to a proper sense of privacy, knowing what should be done away from the public eye. Hashem’s first instinct, as it were, was to give the Torah flashily, to let the whole world know what was happening. But that which happens in public often goes awry, for one reason or other. Better to do it quietly, without too much fanfare. That was Rashi’s view.

It’s a challenging perspective in our times when public actions certainly seem to have been necessary to pushing important goals forward. I think most of those active in the Soviet Jewry movement would say that had the Jewish community restricted itself to acting privately and quietly (as many advocated), there might still be millions of Jews in countries of the former Soviet Union, unable to get out. The same could be said for achieving a state in Israel.

However Rashi would have dealt with those instances, he represents the consensus view regarding many other instances (Makkot 24a, for example, specifies that weddings and funerals should be handled with a strong sense of privacy, not an attempt to broadcast it publicly). Mo’ed Katan 16a-b tells of R. Yehudah haNasi decreeing that Torah should not be taught in the marketplace, because it was supposed to be learned in private, in secret.

As with so much of life, both sides seem to have their place. Some of life is lived in public, necessarily and appropriately. But Rashi is reminding us that, like with exact counting, there’s a downside, and living a more private life avoids much of that.