Parshat Bamidbar: Who counts and who most certainly doesn’t

The Lord said to Moses in the Sinai desert, in the Tent of Meeting on the first day of the second month, in the second year after the exodus from the land of Egypt, saying (2) Take the sum of all the congregation on the Children of Israel, by families following their fathers’ houses; a head count of every male according to the number of their names (3) From twenty years old and upwards, all who are fit to enter and learn in a yeshiva in Israel, you shall count them by their kolels, you and Aaron.

If one does not know any better – and most do not know any better – one could easily believe the above is the opening salvo of Parshat Bamidbar (Numbers) which calls for a national census of every male who counts as a legitimate member of Israelite society.

But in fact this is not how Parshat Bamidbar starts. Rather what it says is:

The Lord said to Moses in the Sinai desert, in the Tent of Meeting on the first day of the second month, in the second year after the exodus from the land of Egypt, saying (2) Take the sum of all the congregation on the Children of Israel, by families following their fathers’ houses; a head count of every male according to the number of their names (3) From twenty years old and upwards, all who are fit to go out in the army in Israel, you shall count them by their legions, you and Aaron.

מבן עשרים שנה ומעלה כל יצא צבא בישראל תפקדו אתם לצבאתם אתה ואהרון

Bamidbar1:1-3

G-d is providing a very clear and unambiguous definition of who is to be counted, namely ‘all who are fit to go out in the army of Israel’. Period. No exceptions.

We may infer from this that not every Israelite male was counted. Surely there were some who were cowards. Others who, through no fault of their own, were either lame or mentally unfit to serve. And still others who finagled their way out of military service. As far as the Torah is concerned they simply did not count. End of story.

Parshat Bamidbar is almost obsessively focused on the issue of military participation. Indeed, 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. Not once does it mention yeshiva students or kolel members or others who choose to spend their lives learning while living off, and being protected by, others.

In fact, the Torah’s only exception to the rule regarding army service are the Levites who are required instead to perform backbreaking labor in the service and maintenance of the משכן (tabernacle).

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

Yet, while the Torah, in this parsha alone, focuses on military service AS THE SINGLE CRITERIA for counting as a member of the Jewish People, nowhere – not even once – does the Torah speak about any ideal of full-time time Torah learning as a valid alternative. Not once. Especially not in the Ten Commandments which engraves in stone the two halves of what Shabbat is all about – a commandment to labor six days a week and to desist from such labor on the seventh. For without six days of weekday labor Shabbat is effectively meaningless. After all one does rest after six days of rest.

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 chatting on their cellphones) would under no circumstances be counted in the Israelite census. Hence, for all intents and purposes, they simply would not have been counted 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 feed off the ones who do.

Among the many spurious excuses haredim give for ignoring both the Torah’s census requirement and the Fourth Commandment to work for a living, is the self-serving argument that they are the “Levites” of our times. This is prima facie absurd, as the Levites did not designate themselves as such, and the work they had to do their entire lives was a combination of back-breaking labor (pretty much like that of the teams that have to assemble and disassemble circus big tops) while doing endless musical and choir practice as part of the Temple ritual. They did not have an idle moment. And they perforce, made huge material sacrifices in order to perform their sacred tasks.

Not only is it obscene for a kolel member to compare himself to a Levite, it is also absurd as there is no analogy at all between the two lifestyles.

No one has the right to remove money from another person’s wallet by claiming he is engaged in Torah study. Maimonides was very clear when he wrote that (a) it is forbidden to earn one’s keep through Torah study and that (b) “those who do eventually embezzle the public”.

Yet while such people may not count according to the Torah, they certainly do count when it comes to the percentage of Israel’s tax revenues they consume and the inverse proportion of taxes they pay. And they depend on Israel’s military to defend them and their children no less than do those who serve and whose children serve – in other words those who, according to the Torah, actually count.

No one may self-designate himself as a Levite in order to justify such larceny. Yes, haredim are reproducing in record numbers. Let us hope and pray that their progeny will one day wake up and assume a rightful, honorable and honest place in Israeli society. Meanwhile, we in Israel can do our part by refusing to allow haredim into government until such time as they recognize Israel as their state, and agree to do their share of both military service and tax contributions. As for their counterparts overseas, one dreads to think what will happen when even the politicians who benefit from their bloc votes decide that “enough is enough”.

JJ Gross
Jerusalem

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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