The entirety of this week’s Torah portion devotes itself to the census of the Jewish people in the desert before their journey towards the Land of Israel. The verses write: “The Lord spoke to Moses in the Sinai Desert, in the Tent of Meeting on the first day of the second month (Iyar), in the second year after the exodus from the land of Egypt, saying. Take the sum of all the congregation of the children of Israel, by families following their fathers’ houses; a head count of every male according to the number of their names… All the children of Israel were counted according to their fathers’ houses, from twenty years and upward, all who were fit to go out to the army.”(Bamidbar 1:1-2, 45) It is interesting to note that this is not the first census taken of the nation in the desert; they had already been counted prior to the construction of the Tabernacle as is recorded in the Book of Exodus 30:11-16; 38:25-26. Why then was it necessary to conduct a second census of the Jewish people in such great detail, a little more than a half a year later?
The classic Biblical commentator, Rashi, explains the reason as follows:“Because they were dear to Him, He counted them often…”(Commentary to 1:1) The Ramban, Rabbi Moses ben Naḥman, builds upon Rashi’s answer and offers three detailed explanations for the additional census which not only sheds light onto our question and the biblical text, but it also adds a new perspective to the modern day return of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel. It can be no coincidence that this week, Jews throughout the world will gather to celebrate Yom Yerushalayim; the Ramban’s message of Parshat Bamidbar will not be far from our hearts and minds.
On the question of why the detailed census at this juncture in the desert — during the beginning of the month of Iyar — the Ramban writes: “Perhaps the idea was to make known His loving kindness unto them, that when their fathers went down to Egypt they numbered only 70 souls and now they were as the sand of the sea. And after every pestilence and plague He counts them in order to make known that though He wounds, His hands make whole again
, in accordance with what our Sages said, ‘Out of an abundance of love for them, He numbers them frequently’.… I have further seen in Bamidbar Rabba on the text, ‘With the number of their names… by their polls’ as follows: The Holy One Blessed be He ordered Moshe to number them in a manner that would confer honour and greatness on each one of them individually… Perhaps in addition this was also the manner of kings when going to war. Now, the children of Israel were ready to enter the land and do battle with the kings of the Amorites who were on the other side of the Jordan… and Moshe and the princes required to know the number of soldiers available… For the Torah does not rely on miracles.” (Commentary to 1:45).
Let us understand the three distinct points of the Ramban: Firstly, the census served to emphasize the fact that the nation had grown from 70 individuals to hundreds of thousands. It reminded the people of their humble beginnings and of the importance of viewing their present through the lens of their past. Secondly, the census counted each and every person individually, highlighting not only their strength as a nation but also of their own individual value and impact. And thirdly, as they were set to cross the Jordan River and begin the battle for the Land of Canaan, the census served to count the number of soldiers available for war, in line with the fundamental Jewish concept of doing all one can not to rely on miracles.
This threefold message takes on new meaning in light of the significance of the month of Iyar in modern day Jewish history. On the 5th of Iyar 5708 (May 14, 1948) the State of Israel was established and the fledgling Jewish community was victorious over its enemies bent on their destruction. Similarly, 19 years later on the 28th of Iyar 5727(June 7, 1967), the city of Jerusalem was reunited and the Jewish people were able to return to their historical heartland in the aftermath of the miraculous victory of the Six Day War. The parallels of the above mentioned Ramban to our modern day return to the Jewish State of Israel are truly inspiring.
Just like the census in ancient times served as a reminder of our growth from a tiny people to a large nation, so too in order to truly appreciate the importance of the re-establishment of the Jewish State, it is imperative that we first develop a proper understanding of our past. Only by viewing the State of Israel through the lens of the last 2000 years of Jewish history – through the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Shoah – will one be able to begin to comprehend Israel’s significance. It is personification of the idea “though He wounds, His hands make whole again.”
Secondly, the census counted each person one by one to highlight the importance of the individual. So too today. The verse writes, “You shall inherit the Land and settle in it, for I have given you the Land to inherit it” (Bamidbar 33:53). The Ramban explains that this positive commandment includes conquering the Land of Israel, as well as dwelling in it (Positive Commandment 4). Though conquering the Land of Israel is done by the nation at large, it falls upon each and every individual to contribute in their own way to settlement of our homeland.
Finally, the census served to count the soldiers – war was on the horizon and the leaders were prepared to fight rather than rely on miracles. Explains Rav Soloveitcchik, a victory through seemingly natural means is a greater tribute to God. He writes,“Judaism does not pursue miracles that occur outside the realm of nature, which have such an important place in the thought of the universal homo religious. …God’s natural Providence is the crowning jewel of His management of the world….”(U-Vikashtem Mi-Sham, pg.133). In line with this idea, the State of Israel has lived a miraculous existence since its very inception, albeit through the cloaked rather than openly miraculous hand of God. The establishment of the State of Israel on the 5th of Iyar 5708 was based on the passing of the United Nations resolution, the military victories of the War of Independence, the Six Day War and the many military operations undertaken since in defence of the Jewish people have been nothing short of miraculous – but they occurred through seemingly natural means. As Rav Soloveitchik mentioned, cloaking the miraculous in the natural, is the crowning jewel of His management of the world.
As we celebrate this Yom Yerushalayim, may we merit to see the State of Israel against the backdrop of history, to internalize that each and every one of us has a tremendous amount to contribute towards settlement of the Land, and to recognize that the seemingly natural order of things are in fact God’s guiding hand. With these messages close to our hearts, may we see the coming of the final redemption speedily in our days.