143/929 Lucky Number 600,000 and the Demographic Bogeyman. Bamidbar 26.

The census in chapter 26 seems, on the face of it, similar enough to the one which occurred 39 years and 25 chapters earlier, at the beginning of the book of Bamidbar. But since then, everything, and almost everyone, has changed. The seemingly dry listing in fact bears the painful scars of all the troubles of the last 40 years, both explicitly, and beneath the surface. The number of Shimonites has been reduced by more than half, a testament to the tribe’s central role in the sin with the daughters of Moav, led by their prince, Zimri. Whole families are missing from the tribe of Levi, perhaps because of their participation in Korach’s rebellion.

But despite all that changes, natural growth and supernatural deaths even each other out, such that after 40 years, the bottom line is essentially the same- the Jewish people still tallies in right around lucky number 600,000.

The number 600,000, as the rabbis understood it on the symbolic level, represents the full diversity of humankind. Every single type of person left Egypt, and every single type of person will enter the land. The specific choices of those who left Egypt determined that the particular individuals making up the nation have almost all changed, save those wise enough to make the right choices. This lucky group includes two men, and, according to Rashi in this chapter, all the women. But, as a nation, you could say that the Jewish people to whom God promised the land is essentially unchanged.

This is an observation that ought to inform us when considering the many urgent initiatives responding to various demographic threats and time bombs. The demographic bogeyman is used to justify policy proposals from all sections of the political and religious map; to withdraw from territories and to annex territories, to change religion and to conserve it. The experience of the Jewish people in the desert, as maaseh avot siman lebanim, an archetype which has proven true throughout our history, despite everything, should allow us to calm down and refocus ourselves. The Jewish people, the eternal nation that created a covenant with God, will be ok. We can leave that to God. Our job is to make sure that we are making the right choices to live up to our commitments, our values, and our dreams.

About the Author
Avidan Freedman is the rabbi of the Shalom Hartman Institute's Hevruta program, an educator Hartman Boys High School in Jerusalem, and an activist against Israeli weapons sales to human rights violators.
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