Mordechai Silverstein

Fate By Numbers

The English name for the fourth book of the Torah, Numbers, based on the Septuagint’s Greek name for the book, derives from the book’s opening subject, a census. The Biblical (Jewish) tradition has a weird relationship with counting people. It is done in the Torah time and again, including at the beginning of Parshat Bemidbar:

On the first day of the second month, in the second year following the exodus from the land of Egypt, the Lord spoke to Moshe in the wilderness of Sinai, in the Tent of Meeting, saying: ‘Take a census of the whole congregation of the children of Israel by the clans of its ancestral houses… (Numbers 1:1-2)

The purpose of this census seems to have been organizational with no further purpose indicated, unlike the censuses taken in the book of Exodus where the rationale was either to raise resources necessary for building the Tent of Assembly or as a means for expiation for sins. Rashi, on the opening verse of the books, seemingly marvels at God’s enthusiasm for counting His chosen people:

On account of his love for them, He counts them all the time: When they left Egypt, He counted them; when they fell on account of the sin of the golden calf, He counted them to know how many remained; when He was about to have His Shechinah (Divine Presence) rest upon them, He counted them; on the first of Nisan, the Mishkan was built, and on the first of Iyar, He counted them.

To get a better sense of the ideas represented by Rashi, let’s take a look at the following midrash:

Then the Lord spoke unto Moses in the Sinai desert. (Numbers 1:1) What did He say to him [in the following verse]? “Take a census (literally: raise the head) of the whole congregation of the Children of Israel….” (Numbers 1:2) Said the Holy One, blessed be He to Israel, ‘I have not cherished any nation more than you; therefore, I have given you a head held high (haramat rosh), just as My head is held high over all of the world, as it says: ‘To you, O Lord, belong the greatness, the might, the splendor, the triumph, and the majesty; for all that is in the heavens and in the earth is Yours; [Yours] is the kingdom, O Lord, and [You] are exalted as head over all’ (I Chronicles 29:11);. Therefore, I have given to you a head held high’, as it says: ‘Raise the head.’ [This exaltation was] to fulfill what is stated: ‘He has raised up a horn for His people, glory for all His faithful ones, for the Children of Israel, a people close to Him. Hallelujah.” (Psalms 148:14) And, so it says: ‘the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations of the earth… (Deuteronomy 28:1) (Tanhuma Bemidbar 8)

From the vantage point of this midrash, God’s command to count His people is a sign of their predominance and their chosenness. They are to be considered God’s pride and glory. Nothing less!

However, let us not forget another episode, towards the end of King David’s life which may put a damper on the exuberance of this idea:

The anger of the Lord again flared up against Israel; and He (God) incited David against them, saying: ‘Go and number Israel and Judah.’ The king said to Yoav, his army commander: ‘Make a round of all of the tribes of Israel, from Dan to Beer-Sheva, and take a census of the people, so that I may know the size of the population.’  (2 Samuel 24:1-2) [Just to note, in the version of this story found in Chronicles, it is Satan who incites David and not God. (See 1 Chronicles 21:1).]

Yoav (for those who follow Israeli politics, the army commander’s name is ironic) attempts to talk David down from this rash action to no avail:

And Yoav said to the king: ‘May the Lord increase the number of the people a hundredfold, while your own eyes see it! But why should my lord king want this thing? But the word of the king to Yoav and the officers of the army remained firm… (Ibid. 3-4)

This apparent abrogation of what seems to be an unstated divine law not to count the people (honored in traditional circles to this day) resulted in a tragic punishment – a plague on the people. Certainly, no sign of divine approbation, let alone chosenness. (See 2 Samuel chapter 24)

Without getting caught up in the multitudinous attempts to explain this enigmatic episode, it is not difficult to discern the radical contrast between it and the events in our parasha. A single act, even the very same act, can have very different consequences. What is it that is likely to determine an act’s outcome? Wisdom and discernment, necessary commodities even in realms like religion, politics, ideology and geo-political machinations. We should never let ourselves be handicapped by lack of reason. Making the right decision will mark the difference between being led down the path to being God’s chosen or following a path to destruction.

About the Author
Mordechai Silverstein is a teacher of Torah who has lived in Jerusalem for over 30 years. He specializes in helping people build personalized Torah study programs.
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