In this week’s Parsha, we read about preparing for entry into the land of Israel. In twenty days, we would cross the river Jordan and begin our conquest of the land. It was now time to begin organising ourselves into regiments, separating the conscripted men from those who were exempt from fighting. The first stage of this process was the census. Its goal was to inform the commanders of the numbers of troops that would be enlisted, enabling them to organise their forces efficiently. This census was militarily motivated.
In hindsight, this census was a complete waste of time; the numbers were never relevant because the Israelites never formed those legions and never fought those battles with those numbers. In a few weeks we will read that the Israelites are destined to wander in the wilderness for 40 years, replenishing the generation that would have been ready to enter the land and fight for it.
Even though we weren’t to know it at the time, Hashem knew that the Israelites weren’t going to enter the land, so why ask them to perform an ostensibly meaningless task of taking a census?
I think the answer is that we need to prepare for the future, but live in the present.
There is an interesting question that was asked of a Rabbi known as the Radvaz (1479-1573, Spain, Egypt): “A prisoner was told that he may leave one day during the year to pray with a Minyan. What day should he choose?”
My natural response would be Yom Kippur or possibly Pesach, but the Radvaz answered that he should take the first available opportunity. This is for two reasons:
- We don’t know the real reward for Mitzvot and who is to say that prayer on Yom Kippur is more important than on a regular day?
- We don’t know what tomorrow brings. If you can perform a mitzvah now in a simple manner or in a ‘better’ way later, you should take the first opportunity − because we must plan for the future but live in the present.
We don’t know what will happen tomorrow, but I do know what is happening now. I cannot predict the future with certainty, but I have clarity about the present.
To quote Ethics of the Fathers, “Don’t say that I will study when I am free; perhaps you will never be free.”