I spent many years working on a long-range air-to-surface missile. The missile would be launched from under the wing of a fighter or bomber aircraft and it would fly a hundred or so kilometres until it reached the target area. The missile would transmit a live video stream back to the operator who would use a joystick to look around for the target. After locating the target, he’d lock the missile’s seeker onto it and then he’d wait until the missile impacted precisely where it was supposed to. The missile would detonate its 800-pound warhead, spreading love and joy to all. Owning this weapon could prevent war. The enemy knew that every important building or facility he owned had been targeted long ago and would be destroyed minutes after war broke out. All that was needed was to download the target coordinates into the missile’s computer and then wait for Judgement Day. The one thing this missile could not do was hit moving targets. The missile needed target coordinates and with a moving target the coordinates are always changing. So we developed other weapons to take care of these nuisances.

The reader is probably asking himself how this Rocket Science is in any way connected with Parashat Bemidbar. Parashat Bemidbar is nearly entirely concerned with a census that Moshe was commanded to take. The first verse in the Parasha sets the stage [Bemidbar 1:1]: “Hashem spoke to Moshe in the Sinai Desert, in the Tent of Meeting, on the first day of the second month, in the second year after they left the land of Egypt, telling him…” The commandment is given with almost military precision: The census must be performed at a specific time – on the first day of the month Iyar – and in a specific place – in the Tent of Meeting in the Mishkan. Once the coordinates are locked in, Moshe can proceed with the counting. But wait a minute – something here doesn’t make sense. Five minutes after Moshe finishes the census some woman might give birth or some person might die, altering the results of the census and rendering it irrelevant. In the context of the previous paragraph, the census was a moving target[1]. Why, then, is it important to rigorously specify the time and the place if the target is moving[2]? Further, most of the 613 mitzvot were given in the Tent of Meeting in the desert. Why does this particular mitzvah have its location specified? Similarly, why does this particular mitzvah have a time-tag? Why doesn’t the Torah tell us “On the fifth day of Av on the third year after the exodus, Hashem told Moshe in the Tent of Meeting that cheeseburgers were to be stricken from the menu”?

The Ohr HaChayim HaKadosh can help us gain some traction. He notes that the Torah “zooms in” to the coordinates of the location in which the census was to be taken: “in the Sinai Desert [and zooming in] in the Tent of Meeting[3]”. On the other hand, the Torah “zooms out” to the time in which the census was to take place: “the first day [zooming out] of the second month [zooming out even more] of the second year after the exodus”. Why doesn’t the Torah zoom out in its determination of the location of the census the same way it does with the time of the census, stating that the census should be taken “in the Tent of Meeting [and zooming out] in the Sinai Desert”[4]?

The Ohr HaChayim HaKadosh answers his own question with a solution that is truly mind-boggling. When I was growing up I used to daven at Beth David Synagogue on 39 Riverside Drive. And when I was growing up I was taught that “Hashem is here, Hashem is there, Hashem is truly everywhere”. If Hashem is truly everywhere, why should one place possess any more holiness than another place? The Ohr HaChayim HaKadosh answers that Hashem is more than “everywhere”. Hashem lies outside the definition of space. If so, how can Hashem command Moshe to build a Mishkan [Shemot 25:8] “so that I shall reside in their midst”? The fact that a structure built by mortal man can serve as an enclosure for the Divine is a paradox. When a person entered the Mishkan, he would leave the earthly definition of location outside the front door. In the Mishkan space became infinite because only infinite space can enclose the Divine. Referring back to the census, when the Torah commands Moshe to perform the census “in the Sinai Desert, in the Tent of Meeting”, the Torah is most certainly zooming out the same way it did when it determined the time of the census, because the “size” of Tent of Meeting was infinitely greater than the size of all of the deserts in the world.

The Ramban notes that the census in Parashat Bemidbar was the first mitzvah that was commanded from the Mishkan, and that every mitzvah that was subsequently commanded to Moshe would also be commanded from the Mishkan. Applying the logic of the Ohr HaChayim HaKadosh, the Torah is using the first mitzvah that was commanded from the Mishkan to teach Am Yisrael the concept that the Mishkan is beyond space, just as Hashem, for whom the Mishkan was built, is beyond space. Now we are ready to answer our first question: What use is a census if it is a moving target? The answer is that not only is Hashem beyond space, He is also beyond time. If one were to plot a graph of the population of Am Yisrael as a function of time, the result would be a curve that would typically rise but at times would rapidly fall. These times coincide with the destruction of the two Batei HaMikdash, the Crusades, the Holocaust, and other national horrors. We can see all of the data points that precede our existence, but we are cognizant that we are looking at a snapshot of a graph that goes on forever. Hashem sees the entire graph, from the beginning of time until the end of time[5]. Of what use is a census to Hashem? Hashem did not command Moshe to perform a census of Am Yisrael so that Hashem would know how many people there were. Hashem did not command Moshe to perform a census of Am Yisrael so that Moshe would know how many people there were[6]. On the second day of Iyar, Hashem commanded Moshe from the Tent of Meeting to take a census of Am Yisrael to publically demonstrate that both time and place are irrelevant to Hashem. The commandment to perform the mitzvah was more important than the mitzvah itself.

Three and a half thousand years ago, Hashem ripped open the sky and gave the Torah to mortal man. His Divine Presence shook the entire world. As a result of the sin of the egel Hashem relegated His Presence to the Mishkan, and eventually to the Beit HaMikdash. Am Yisrael did not stop sinning, and Hashem destroyed the Beit HaMikdash. Because of our own sins, it has still not yet been rebuilt. All that we have left today are our synagogues. While a synagogue today does not possess the same holiness as the Mishkan, our Sages still call it a “Mishkan me’at” – a micro-Mishkan. A synagogue possesses a shadow of the holiness that once was and that will one day return. Consequently, we, too, can get a glimpse of what it means to be beyond space and time just by entering a shul. Next time you run in out of breath to catch a minyan, stop and look around. Maybe you’ll see something that you never saw before.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5775

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Moshe Dov ben Malka

[1] Thanks to R’ David Sobol for this insight.

[2] It is entirely possible that some of the numbers in the census were rounded, see our shiur of Bemidbar 5761. Even so, the question still stands: Why would Hashem require precision in time and space when the outcome is either moving or imprecise?

[3] Think of Google Maps. Today I was looking for the House of Parliament in Ottawa. I found Canada, next I zoomed in to Ottawa, and then I zoomed in to the House of Parliament. Interesting factoid: Google Maps has a 3D model of the Canadian House of Parliament, but the Capitol Building and the White House in Washington DC, as well as the Blue House in Seoul are all only 2D. This says lots about who feels threatened and who does not.

[4] Surprisingly, the Ohr HaChayim HaKadosh does not use the terms “zoom in” and “zoom out”. He prefers the terms “general” (klal) and “specific” (prat).

[5][5] The truth is that we could have described something similar regarding how Hashem is beyond space, but it would have been much more mathematically esoteric and most likely incomprehensible.

[6] The Torah never shows how Moshe used the results of the census in any meaningful way.