Take the sum of all the congregation of the children of Israel, by families following their fathers’ houses; a head count of every male according to the number of their names. Then Moses and Aaron took these men, who were indicated by [their] names, and they assembled all the congregation on the first day of the second month, and they declared their pedigrees according to their families according to their fathers’ houses; according to the number of names, a head count of every male from twenty years old and upward.
Governments conduct a census for a variety of reasons — very little of which relate to the welfare of the people. Taxes are a primary reason. In pre-War World II Poland, the Jews comprised 10 percent of the country and yet paid 40 percent of the taxes. In the British mandate of Palestine, the Jews were less than one-third but provided 70 percent of the levies.
From the start of World War II, the Germans followed each conquest with a census of the Jews — who were they, where did they live and what were their professions? The results paved the way for the ghetto, starvation and deportation to the death camps.
Indeed, the census, mentioned in this week’s Torah portion and taken in the desert by Moses, sparked a basic question: Why? G-d didn’t need taxes for sewage and police services. Food and water were free. Clothes never frayed. Rabbi Moses Ben Nachman, the 13th Century Spanish commentator known as in Hebrew as the Ramban, seems to throw up his hands:
“I don’t understand the reason for this commandment,” he writes.
The Ramban ends up giving two reasons that turn the concept of census on its head. He says that the census was not a tool for the government or divine rule. It was meant for the people. One reason was that the Jewish people understand the miracle of G-d. Some 210 years earlier, Jacob and his family arrived in Egypt. The total number of Jews was 70. After the liberation from slavery in Egypt, the Jews ages 20 to 60 numbered 603,550, or nearly 1,000-fold. Can you beat that?
The second reason deals with the Jewish collective. The census was meant to glorify the Jews. The more Jews the greater their rights, the greater their credit with G-d as well as with Moses and Aaron. With such a large and robust community, the two leaders could not help but use the census to ask G-d for mercy for His people. And G-d asks Moses and Aaron to regard each Jew as an individual rather than a number. In the words of the Ramban the Jews were meant to be treated “with respect and greatness for each one.” Do not knock on the door of a house and ask the patriarch to submit a head count. Instead, ask everybody to come outside where the leaders can see their people.
That is the Jewish way: The Jew is responsible for his community but remains an individual. He has a name, a family, roots that reach back to Abraham. He is needed for a quorum for prayer three times a day. He is needed to learn Torah. He is not faceless and makes a difference every day.
Sometimes that difference changes the world. Ovadia Bartenura grew up in Italy in the 15th Century and became a leading rabbi as well as banker — on a papal list of Jews authorized to lend money. After the death of his wife in 1486, the rabbi heard a different calling — that of the Land of Israel. He left his life of luxury for the difficult journey through the Balkans, Turkey and Syria that lasted some 18 months. He arrived in Jerusalem destroyed by the Crusaders, populated by no more than 70 Jewish families, an impoverished community that could not even afford a Torah scroll.
Ovadia, then not even 40 years old, took charge. Under the watchful eye of the Mamluk sultanate, he raised money from his banker family in Italy, organized charity for the Jews, restored the burial society and all the while taught Torah in Hebrew. He led the restoration of the synagogue, destroyed by vandals. Eventually, permanent help arrived in the form of Jews expelled from Spain — motivated and scholarly immigrants.
And that represents the other side of the census: The individual who tells the collective “Count me in. Bring me into the Jewish people.” This person becomes the embodiment of the Talmudic adage “All who engage with the public in faith, G-d rewards them.” Ovadia Bartenura eventually became the chief rabbi of Jerusalem but asked for no privileges. He helped purify and bury the dead as any other member of the society.
In the end, the Jews in the desert were given the respect worthy of G-d’s people. As he proceeded with the census Moses maintained the privacy of the Jewish families and did not barge into their tents. When there was a problem G-d simply gave Moses the number.
As the Lord commanded Moses, so did he count them in the Sinai desert.