J.J Gross
J.J Gross

BAMIDBAR: A military head count, not a population census

Fiscal shenanigans are common if not endemic among Israel’s haredim. One can be charitable and consider these a holdover from life in a Europe where Jews were powerless and ‘shtick’ was the only way to somehow level the playing field.

Yet the fact is, here in Israel, Haredim enjoy every freedom this democracy guarantees, not to mention an inordinate amount of tail-wagging-the-dog political power. Nevertheless, Haredim still live with an ethos of shtick, justifying their monkeyshines by perceiving themselves as still living in an antisemitic society, one that is therefore fair game.

There is one issue, however, in which haredi lawlessness is driven 100% top-down. And the offense is not against some secular regime or a heretical population of tax-paying dupes. It is a transgression against the Torah itself, one no less absolute than laboring on Shabbat or consuming the flesh of swine.

This flagrant and self-serving violation on the part of the haredi leadership is designed to consolidate and conserve the ironclad hold of the so-called gedolim (Torah sages and hassidic chieftains) over their minions.

I am referring to the absolute refusal to participate in the defense of the State of Israel, which means the defense of the Jewish People.

Haredi leaders are often violently at odds with one another concerning most issues. Fratricidal turf battles between hassidic chieftains is a commonplace. Yet they are all — hasidic, yeshivish and even haredi Sefaradim — united in demanding the systemic, institutionalized draft-dodging of their young men.

Furthermore, no single issue so symbolizes the readiness of the haredi world to sponge off the greater society. Because men who do not serve may not (officially) work. And men who do not (officially) work may/must take money from a government they do not support. And this government must take the money it uses to support the men who neither work nor serve, from the men and women who do both.

Now let us look at his week’s Torah portion, Parshat Bamidbar, which is almost obsessively focused on the issue of military participation. Indeed, in its census, the Torah refuses to even count any man over the age of 20 who does not serve in the military. The word צבא (army) or its variant לצבאותם — with regard to the criteria for validating the inclusion of a male in the national census — appears 34 times in Parshat Bamidbar.

In fact, the only exceptions to the law of universal conscription are the Levites who are required, instead, to perform backbreaking labor in the service, transportation and maintenance of the משכן (Tabernacle) from age 20-50.

In other words, while virtually all Israelite males are responsible for defense, the Levites are tasked with grueling, lifelong national service. This is their hereditary role, one that effectively removes them from the economic grid.

So here we have the Torah telling us, in no uncertain terms, that every single one of the haredi men who are ostensibly sitting and learning (including the throngs who are wandering the streets at all hours of the day smoking cigarettes and schmoozing on their cellphones) would, under no circumstances, be counted in the Israelite census. Hence, for all intents and purposes, they simply would not even exist among the 600,000 Children of Israel who came out of Egypt, and by extension do not count today, even though they do exist to siphon off the ones who do serve.

The self-serving haredi argument that they are the Levites of our times is spurious. None of them (unless coincidentally) are Levites. And no one has the right to remove money from another person’s wallet by claiming he is engaged in Torah study, let alone shirk responsibility for the nation’s security. Maimonides was very clear when he wrote that it is forbidden to earn one’s keep through Torah study and that “those who do so end up embezzling the public”.

No one can self-designate himself as a Levite in order to justify such larceny – especially when there is no quid pro quo whereby, in exchange for military exemption, they provide a necessary, invaluable and back-breaking service for thirty long years.

At the same time, the haredi leaders are not the only ones to blame. No less guilty is a secular political leadership that, out of political expediency, enables this crime and sells out the tax-paying, army serving public. If the price of cobbling together a coalition is to cynically sell out the interests of the broader public, this too is a crime, one with serious long-term implications.

It is interesting that the Torah uses two different words for counting. The first is שאו and the second is פקד.

שְׂא֗וּ אֶת־רֹאשׁ֙ כָּל־עֲדַ֣ת בְּנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל לְמִשְׁפְּחֹתָ֖ם לְבֵ֣ית אֲבֹתָ֑ם בְּמִסְפַּ֣ר שֵׁמ֔וֹת כָּל־זָכָ֖ר לְגֻלְגְּלֹתָֽם

מִבֶּ֨ן עֶשְׂרִ֤ים שָׁנָה֙ וָמַ֔עְלָה כָּל־יֹצֵ֥א צָבָ֖א בְּיִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל תִּפְקְד֥וּ אֹתָ֛ם לְצִבְאֹתָ֖ם אַתָּ֥ה וְאַֽהֲרֹֽן

Bamidbar/Numbers 1:2-3

The second term — פקד — is the same word that is used for ‘command’. It is a specific military term. It is clearly being used here not only because those being counted are military men, but because the counting is integral to the logistical deployment of these men in their defensive encampments around the Mishkan/Tabernacle.

Clearly, the need for a census was not to determine how many human beings were traveling through the desert but, rather, how many able-bodied warriors there were and how they should be positioned in defense of the both the Mishkan and the larger community — which included women, children, the aged and the uncounted men, be they shirkers or disabled and therefore incapable of contributing to the nation’s security.

In fact, a case can be made for the word פקד as having nothing to do with counting and everything to do with military service.

For example:

כַּֽאֲשֶׁ֛ר צִוָּ֥ה יְהוָֹ֖ה אֶת־משֶׁ֑ה וַיִּפְקְדֵ֖ם בְּמִדְבַּ֥ר סִינָֽי

As the Lord ordered Moses, and they were commandeered in the Sinai desert (1:19)

פְּקֻֽדֵיהֶ֖ם לְמַטֵּ֣ה רְאוּבֵ֑ן שִׁשָּׁ֧ה וְאַרְבָּעִ֛ים אֶ֖לֶף וַֽחֲמֵ֥שׁ מֵאֽוֹת

Those commandeered to the Tribe of Reuben numbered 64,500 (1:21)

As for when the word פקד is used regarding the Levites, here, too, they are being commandeered but for a non-military, but hardly less demanding, role. Indeed the Levites are considered a virtual sacrifice, substituting for the firstborn among of the Israelites

וַֽאֲנִ֞י הִנֵּ֧ה לָקַ֣חְתִּי אֶת־הַֽלְוִיִּ֗ם מִתּוֹךְ֙ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל
תַּ֧חַת כָּל־בְּכ֛וֹר פֶּ֥טֶר רֶ֖חֶם מִבְּנֵ֣י ישראל

As for Me I have taken the Levites from among the children of Israel in place of all firstborns among the children of Israel who have opened the womb, and the Levites shall be Mine. (3:12)

Which helps explain (3:6), the word הקרב as not only meaning “bring closer”, but “sacrifice”, for the Levites are proxy sacrifices in lieu of the firstborn.

הַקְרֵב֙ אֶת־מַטֵּ֣ה לֵוִ֔י וְהַֽעֲמַדְתָּ֣ אֹת֔וֹ לִפְנֵ֖י אַֽהֲרֹ֣ן הַכֹּהֵ֑ן וְשֵֽׁרְת֖וּ אֹתֽוֹ

Bring closer (sacrifice) the tribe of Levi and present them before Aaron the kohen, that they may serve him.

About the Author
J.J Gross is a veteran creative director and copywriter, who made aliyah in 2007 from New York. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and a lifelong student of Bible and Talmud. He is also the son of Holocaust survivors from Hungary and Slovakia.
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