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Parashat Bamidbar: Counting toward nationhood

Think the biblical census is irrelevant today? Think again, as it reveals essential truths about what is critical for a just, healthy society (Bamidbar)
(John Hain, Pixabay)

With this week’s parasha, we enter Sefer Bamidbar, the Book of the Wilderness. As our parashah opens, the Israelites are poised to set out from Sinai, where they have been encamped for the past year. A journey of no more than eleven days separates them from their entry into the Land of Israel. Sefer Bamidbar is the story of a great test: Can the disparate tribes of Israel put into practice the lessons learned during the revelation at Sinai and the subsequent building of the Mishkan. Can they forge themselves into a nation capable of conquering their ancestral homeland and building a just and lasting society?

We readers know that they will fail the test time and again. The journey of 11 days will become an arduous adventure lasting 40 long years, during which an entire generation is consumed. This tragic outcome is not portrayed as inevitable; rather, it is the result of internal tensions, lack of vision, and above all, a lack of unity.

Pluralism in Unity

The need for that unity is highlighted in the opening passages of our parashah:

Take a census (literally, “lift up the heads”) of the whole Israelite community by their clans and ancestral houses, listing the names, every male, head by head. You and Aaron shall record them by their assemblies (“l’tzibotam”), from the age of twenty years up, all those in Israel who go out to the assembly (“kol yotzei tzava”).

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 וְאַהֲרֹֽן׃

The need for the census is couched in terms of a great call-up: a setting apart of all the men of military age. According to the Rashbam, the term, “kol yotzei tzava,” should be understood as those who “go out to war,” or more colloquially as those capable of bearing arms. Thus, the census is a “call to arms” — a draft of military-aged men as the nation prepares to conquer Canaan. However, Rabbi Chanoch Waxman presents a persuasive argument that the phrase should instead be translated as “those who go out to assemble.”

But assemble for what? What is the purpose of the national census? A case can be made that the census isn’t so much a national call to arms, but rather, a national call to “pull themselves together,” to see themselves not just as individuals belonging to “their clans and their ancestral houses,” but as part of something greater — the union of pluralities that we call a nation.

And yet, neither the individual nor his family or tribal identity is sacrificed to achieve this unity. In a thoughtful essay, Rabbi Yair Kahn emphasizes that the camp of the Israelites was not a melting pot, but rather the individual tribes preserved their own identity, each under its own flag. As for individuals:

[…] the Torah stresses that every person was counted “le-gulgilotam,” by his head – that is, as an individual. In other words, the singular characteristics exclusive to each individual are not to be suppressed and destroyed, but protected and only then integrated into the national whole. The ideal of “machane Yisrael” rejects both individualism, in which the particular denies his communal obligations and responsibilities, as well as uniformity, which forces the individual to conform and thereby deadens his singular characteristics and qualities.

Jewish society lacks what Western society calls “independent realms of experience.” Instead, individual, clan, household, and nation are all linked, forming a society that is organic, without sharp distinctions between public and private spheres. An interesting corollary to this integration is that the individual is made more, not less, important. The lack of any single individual can impact the functioning of the entire organic community, and hinder it in the completion of its mission. Thus, any threat to individuals is seen as a threat to the whole. Solidarity becomes an actionable imperative.

The Covenantal fellowship formed at Sinai is not a voluntary undertaking: once the Israelites have accepted the Torah and its strictures, they are bound together by bonds of legal — not emotional — solidarity. This involuntary status marks the distinction between much of the Jewish worldview and that of Western society.

Halakhah recognizes that the individual is not the be-all/end-all of society, neither in ethics nor in existential reality. The individual is part of a larger whole, to which he or she is held accountable. This lays the foundation for three main consequences: 1) the insistence that every individual has free will, and, 2) The individual has no inherent right to do or be anything. Rather, he has an obligation to do and to be, stemming from his status as a created, embodied being. This leads to 3) the insistence on the inherent value of human life, as enabler of the fulfillment of a mission entrusted in each individual by a higher power.

An antidote to the “I-Society”

More than a thousand years after the national call-up in the wilderness, the Talmud will note that “all Israel are guarantors one for the other.” This view transcends the simplistic mode of individualistic/collectivist dichotomy. Jewish political organization is both and neither.  This will be a nation where law must be accepted voluntarily, from the bottom up, rather than imposed from the top down. It will be a nation where authority will naturally be dispersive, rather than hierarchical, and where individualism is balanced against collectivism.

The tension between collectivism and individualism fuels growth and achievement in a society. But in most society’s individualism eventually wins out. The result is an “I-society”: I want, I’m too busy to raise a family, I have to accomplish something before I die….

We often see increasing individualism, at the expense of communal well-being, in societies that on the brink of demographic decline. The census at the beginning of Bamidbar — and particularly in its wording — is a warning against such a slide into an “I-centric” state of being.

But it is Sefer Bamidbar as a whole that provides the object lesson. We see exactly what happens when a nation is at odds with itself, when leaders lack vision (the sin of the spies), or when they seek their own aggrandizement at the expense of the national good (Korah’s rebellion). Sefer Bamidbar is a veritable textbook on what can go wrong on the way to peoplehood.

We, reading the story, are meant to learn from the misfortunes of the Generation of the Wilderness. We learn vicariously by experiencing the ups and downs with them. This vicarious memory provides far more intimate knowledge than would the most erudite lecture.

Chacham HaRazim

After all this, we’re naturally curious to learn the result of this great call-up: how many individual males — “by their families and ancestral houses” — actually “went out in the assembly” of Israel? The answer is 603,550. This numerical outcome has become symbolic in Jewish tradition of “individuals gathered into a unit.” In fact, a special blessing was instituted to be said when witnessing such an assembly: “One who sees masses of Israel (600,000, according to Rashi) says: “Blessed is the One who is wise in secrets (‘Chacham harazim’)” (Berakhot 58a).

This blessing was said for the first time in Israeli history at the funeral of Rabbi Ovadya Yosef. But why “chacham harazim” rather than “yodea harazim” (the Knower of secrets)? We tend to think of “yeda” as rational knowledge, while “chochmah” is the more intuitive form of wisdom. Chochmah may represent a deeper level of knowing — the kind of knowing where we may not be able to explain how we know, or even what we know. The kind of knowing that can integrate the enduring paradox of individuality/community.

And the secret? Perhaps this refers to the secret hidden in plain sight throughout the Torah and the later talmudic writings: that life is never all-or-nothing; reality is not black-and-white. One cannot build a just society upon the notion that only one view represents absolute truth. Nor can a healthy society quash the needs and distinctions of individuals. Instead, human beings must be counted “by their heads” and “according to their families and ancestral houses,” even as they “assemble” themselves into a nation with a single destination.

About the Author
Yael Shahar has spent most of her career working in counter-terrorism and intelligence, with brief forays into teaching physics and astronomy. She now divides her time between writing, off-road trekking, and learning Talmud with anyone who will sit still long enough. She is the author of Returning, a haunting exploration of Jewish memory, betrayal, and redemption.
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