Parshas Bamidbar - Do I Really Count?
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וַיְדַבֵּ֨ר יְהוָֹ֧ה אֶל־משֶׁ֛ה בְּמִדְבַּ֥ר סִינַ֖י בְּאֹ֣הֶל מוֹעֵ֑ד בְּאֶחָד֩ לַחֹ֨דֶשׁ הַשֵּׁנִ֜י בַּשָּׁנָ֣ה הַשֵּׁנִ֗ית לְצֵאתָ֛ם מֵאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרַ֖יִם לֵאמֹֽר: שְׂא֗וּ אֶת־רֹאשׁ֙ כָּל־עֲדַ֣ת בְּנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל לְמִשְׁפְּחֹתָ֖ם לְבֵ֣ית אֲבֹתָ֑ם בְּמִסְפַּ֣ר שֵׁמ֔וֹת כָּל־זָכָ֖ר לְגֻלְגְּלֹתָֽם:
The Lord spoke 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. 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. (Bamidbar 1:1,2)
Rashi explains the purpose of counting Klal Yisrael:
וידבר. במדבר סיני באחד לחדש: וגו' מתוך חיבתן לפניו מונה אותם כל שעה, כשיצאו ממצרים מנאן, וכשנפלו בעגל מנאן לידע מנין הנותרים. כשבא להשרות שכינתו עליהן מנאן. באחד בניסן הוקם המשכן, ובאחד באייר מנאם:
The Lord spoke... in the Sinai Desert... on the first of the month: Because they were dear to Him, He counted them all the time. When they left Egypt, He counted them (Exod. 12:37); when [many] fell because [of the sin] of the golden calf, He counted them to know the number of the survivors (Exod. 32:28); when He came to cause His Divine Presence to rest among them, He counted them. On the first of Nissan, the Mishkan was erected, and on the first of Iyar, He counted them.
Several questions arise when we consider the concept of counting in the Midbar.
Rashi explained that Hashem counts us because we are His beloved. A person will count their precious belongings just to enjoy the fact they they have them. For example, after a long time of not going through her jewelry, a woman may count out her various pieces so she can once again experience how much she enjoys them. When I was a young boy I distinctly remember counting my baseball cards and feeling blessed to have so many. God however knows exactly how many of us there are. How could counting be an expression of his love for us?
Rashi tells us that Hashem is מונה אותם כל שעה, counting us all the time. Rashi then continues and tells us that Hashem counted us three times in the Midbar. Three times in the span of forty years does not seem like we are being counted "all the time". The Medrash Tanchuma in Parshas Ki Tissa (9) makes our question even more profound considering that it teaches that Klal Yisrael was only counted ten times in history! (When they went down to Mitzrayim, when they came out of Mitzrayim, in the beginning of Sefer Bamidbar, by the Meraglim, in the times of Yehoshua, twice in the times of Shaul, once in the times of Dovid HaMelech, once in the times of Ezra. The final counting will be in the times of redemption.) So which one is it? Are we being counted all the time or only nine times throughout history thus far?
In addition to counting the individual members of Klal Yisrael, the Torah mentions the larger groups of the family, and the father’s house. What is the significance of mentioning the larger groups? If we are already mentioning the larger groups, why count the individuals at all? Why not just ask the heads of the households how many members there are in their family?
The phrase שְׂא֗וּ אֶת־רֹאשׁ֙ כָּל־עֲדַ֣ת בְּנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל, Take the sum of all the congregation of the children of Israel, literally means to raise up the heads of the children of Israel. Why does the Torah not simply tell us to count?
Instead of using the word sefira the Torah uses the term Pakad (מִבֶּ֨ן עֶשְׂרִ֤ים שָׁנָה֙ וָמַ֔עְלָה כָּל־יֹצֵ֥א צָבָ֖א בְּיִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל תִּפְקְד֥וּ אֹתָ֛ם לְצִבְאֹתָ֖ם אַתָּ֥ה וְאַֽהֲרֹֽן) when commanding Moshe to count Klal Yisrael. Why does the Torah use this terminology?
The Gemara in Sotah (36a) tells us that the name for Sefer Bamidbar is actually Sefer HaPekudim, the book of counting. The name of a Sefer should not be driven by one or two stories that occur in the book but should embody the theme of the entire Sefer. How does Sefer HaPekudim reflect the essence of all of Sefer Bamidbar?
Parshas Bamidbar is usually read on the Shabbos before Shavuos. Chazal (Taanis 26b) sa that Shavuos is the marriage between Klal Yisrael and Hashem. This would mean that Parshas Bamidbar is our aufruf. What is the connection between Parshas Bamidbar and Matan Torah? How does learning this Parsha prepare us for Kabbalas HaTorah?
Not Just Another Number
Rashi above told us that counting is an act of love but is that in fact true?
The Torah tells us (Shemos 30:12):
כִּ֣י תִשָּׂ֞א אֶת־רֹ֥אשׁ בְּנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵל֘ לִפְקֻֽדֵיהֶם֒ וְנָ֨תְנ֜וּ אִ֣ישׁ כֹּ֧פֶר נַפְשׁ֛וֹ לַֽיהֹוָ֖ה בִּפְקֹ֣ד אֹתָ֑ם וְלֹא־יִֽהְיֶ֥ה בָהֶ֛ם נֶ֖גֶף בִּפְקֹ֥ד אֹתָֽם:
"When you take the sum of the children of Israel according to their numbers, let each one give to the Lord an atonement for his soul when they are counted; then there will be no plague among them when they are counted."
Rashi (ibid.) explains that there is an ayin hara over numbered things and as a result Klal Yisrael will be subject to a plague as they were in the times of Dovid HaMelech.
The Gemara in Yoma (22b) makes it clear that there is a prohibition against counting Klal Yisrael.
דאמר רבי יצחק אסור למנות את ישראל אפילו לדבר מצוה דכתיב (שמואל א יא, ח) ויפקדם בבזק
Rabbi Yitzḥak said: It is prohibited to count Jews directly, even for the purposes of a mitzva, as it is written concerning King Saul and his count of his soldiers: “And he numbered them with bezek” (I Samuel 11:8),meaning that he counted them through shards, one shard representing each man, rather than counting them directly.
אמר רבי אלעזר כל המונה את ישראל עובר בלאו שנאמר (הושע ב, א) והיה מספר בני ישראל כחול הים אשר לא ימד רב נחמן בר יצחק אמר עובר בשני לאוין שנאמר לא ימד ולא יספר
Rabbi Elazar said: Whoever counts a group of Jews violates a negative mitzva, as it is stated: “And the number of the children of Israel will be like the sand of the sea, which cannot be measured” (Hosea 2:1). Rabbi Elazar interprets the verse to be saying: Which may not be measured. Rav Naḥman bar Yitzḥak said: One who counts a group of Jews in fact violates two negative mitzvot, as it is stated in that verse: “Which cannot be measured and cannot be counted” (Hosea 2:1).
Clearly the Gemara is telling us that it is assur to count Jews and yet we find that God is doing so in our Parsha. In fact, the Gemara itself points out that Hashem counts us:
אמר רבי שמואל בר נחמני ר' יונתן רמי כתיב והיה מספר בני ישראל כחול הים וכתיב אשר לא ימד ולא יספר לא קשיא כאן בזמן שישראל עושין רצונו של מקום כאן בזמן שאין עושין רצונו של מקום רבי אמר משום אבא יוסי בן דוסתאי לא קשיא כאן בידי אדם כאן בידי שמים
Rabbi Shmuel bar Naḥmani said that Rabbi Yonatan raised a contradiction: It is written in this verse: “And the number of the children of Israel will be like the sand of the sea,” suggesting that they will have a specific number, though it will be very large. On the other hand, it continues and says: “Which cannot be measured and cannot be counted,” which means they will not be countable at all. How can these two statements be reconciled? It is not difficult: Here, in the second statement, it is referring to a time when the Jewish people fulfill the will of God; then they will be innumerable. There, in the first statement, it is referring to a time when the Jewish people do not fulfill the will of God; then they will be like the sand of the sea, having a specific number. Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi said a different resolution in the name of Abba Yosei ben Dostai: It is not difficult: Here, in the second statement, it is referring to counting by the hand of man; the Jewish people will be too numerous to count by man. There, in the first statement, it is referring to counting by the hand of God, and He will find that they are like the number of the grains of the sand of the sea.
We are now faced with a contradiction. Rashi has described counting as an act of love. On the other hand, counting causes an ayin hara which can bring with it terrible repercussions. The Gemara makes it clear that it is assur to count Klal Yisrael. Which one is it?
In order to understand this let us first look at the Rabbeinu Bachya (Shemos 30:12) who provides us with an insight as to why counting is impermissible.
וגלה לך הכתוב כי העם הנפרט במנינו כל אחד לגלגלותם הנה הוא מושגח מבעל ההשגחה יתעלה וכל מעשיו נפרטין לפניו ואז יחול הנגף, מה שאין כן בתחלה שהיה ענינו נמשך בכלל הרבים אבל עתה בהיות כל יחיד ויחיד וכל מעשיו נפרטין אי אפשר מבלתי עונש
The most important revelation of our verse is that all the people that were counted each enjoy individual supervision of their fates by the Lord God. All the deeds performed by any individual are recorded. This is why these people become potential victims of a plague. As long as they had only been part of a whole, and not individuals in their own right, the evil eye had not been able to focus on them, seeing they were not a number in themselves. The whole idea of enjoying individual supervision of one’s fate by God carries with it also the awesome responsibility of ensuring one does not become a candidate for punishment by God.
To sum up, counting an individual person singles them out. As an individual they may not have enough merit to pass the judgement that is upon them. The community surely has many merits and when we are a part of the community we are meritorious along with them. (see also Kli Yakar Shemos 30:12) Why then does Hashem count Klal Yisrael? If He is taking us out of the community and subjecting us to individualized scrutiny, how can that be called an act of love?
In order to answer this question we must first examine the word the Torah uses to count Klal Yisrael.
מִבֶּ֨ן עֶשְׂרִ֤ים שָׁנָה֙ וָמַ֔עְלָה כָּל־יֹצֵ֥א צָבָ֖א בְּיִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל תִּפְקְד֥וּ אֹתָ֛ם לְצִבְאֹתָ֖ם אַתָּ֥ה וְאַֽהֲרֹֽן:
From twenty years old and upwards, all who are fit to go out to the army in Israel, you shall count them by their legions you and Aaron. (Bamidbar 1:3)
The classic word for counting is sefira. Sefirah applies to the omer, shemittah, yovel, niddah etc.... Here the Torah uses the term Pakad. What is the meaning of the word Pakad (as opposed to sefira)?
Let us look at some examples where the term Pakad is used in the Torah:
וַֽיהֹוָ֛ה פָּקַ֥ד אֶת־שָׂרָ֖ה כַּֽאֲשֶׁ֣ר אָמָ֑ר וַיַּ֧עַשׂ יְהֹוָ֛ה לְשָׂרָ֖ה כַּֽאֲשֶׁ֥ר דִּבֵּֽר:
"And the Lord remembered Sarah as He had said, and the Lord did to Sarah as He had spoken." (Bereishis 21:1)
וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יוֹסֵף֙ אֶל־אֶחָ֔יו אָֽנֹכִ֖י מֵ֑ת וֵֽאלֹהִ֞ים פָּקֹ֧ד יִפְקֹ֣ד אֶתְכֶ֗ם וְהֶֽעֱלָ֤ה אֶתְכֶם֙ מִן־הָאָ֣רֶץ הַזֹּ֔את אֶל־הָאָ֕רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר נִשְׁבַּ֛ע לְאַבְרָהָ֥ם לְיִצְחָ֖ק וּלְיַֽעֲקֹֽב:
"Joseph said to his brothers, "I am going to die; God will surely remember you and take you up out of this land to the land that He swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob." (Bereishis 50:24)
אֵ֣לֶּה פְקוּדֵ֤י הַמִּשְׁכָּן֙ מִשְׁכַּ֣ן הָֽעֵדֻ֔ת אֲשֶׁ֥ר פֻּקַּ֖ד עַל־פִּ֣י משֶׁ֑ה עֲבֹדַת֙ הַֽלְוִיִּ֔ם בְּיַד֙ אִֽיתָמָ֔ר בֶּן־אַֽהֲרֹ֖ן הַכֹּהֵֽן:
This is the accounting of the Mishkan, the Mishkan of the Testimony, which were counted at Moses' command; [this was] the work of the Levites under the direction of Ithamar, the son of Aaron the Kohen. (Shemos 38:21)
וּפְקֻדַּ֣ת מִשְׁמֶ֘רֶת֘ בְּנֵ֣י מְרָרִי֒ קַרְשֵׁי֙ הַמִּשְׁכָּ֔ן וּבְרִיחָ֖יו וְעַמֻּדָ֣יו וַֽאֲדָנָ֑יו וְכָ֨ל־כֵּלָ֔יו וְכֹ֖ל עֲבֹֽדָתֽוֹ:
The appointment of the charge of the sons of Merari [included] the planks of the Mishkan, its bars, its pillars, and its sockets, all its utensils, and all the work involved. (Bamidbar 3:36)
אִם־כְּמ֤וֹת כָּל־הָֽאָדָם֙ יְמֻת֣וּן אֵ֔לֶּה וּפְקֻדַּת֙ כָּל־הָ֣אָדָ֔ם יִפָּקֵ֖ד עֲלֵיהֶ֑ם לֹ֥א יְהֹוָ֖ה שְׁלָחָֽנִי:
"If these men die as all men die and the fate of all men will be visited upon them, then the Lord has not sent me." (Bamidbar 16:29)
The term Pakad seems to be used in many different ways. Hashem remembered Sarah. Yosef assures his brothers that God will remember them and bring them out of Mitzrayim. Yet it is also used as an assignment of responsibilities by the Leviim, it means fate in the context of Korach's rebellion and it means accounting when Moshe is counting all the donations to the Mishkan. What is the common thread?
It seems that the word Pakad connotes importance. Hashem shows the value he places on Sarah by remembering her. Yosef assures his brothers that they remain important to Hashem and will ultimately take them out of exile. The Leviim have an elevated position in the Mishkan. Moshe has to make an accounting which affirms the unique role that everything that has in the Mishkan.
So Pakad does not simply mean counting. When we count someone we diminish their value. They are just another number.
This as Dovid HaMelech wrote in Tehillim (147:3-4)
הָ֣רוֹפֵא לִשְׁב֣וּרֵי לֵ֑ב וּ֜מְחַבֵּ֗שׁ לְעַצְּבוֹתָֽם: מוֹנֶ֣ה מִ֖סְפָּר לַכּֽוֹכָבִ֑ים לְ֜כֻלָּ֗ם שֵׁמ֥וֹת יִקְרָֽא:
"Who (God) heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds. He counts the number of the stars, he calls them all by name.”
Here the term מִ֖סְפָּר is used. The counting itself could not provide a healing because in this sense we are just another number hence the passuk continues and says he calls them all by name. Only when one attaches a name, an identity, to the number does it become meaningful.
Pakad is exactly the opposite of sefira. It connotes the importance of every individual in Klal Yisrael. Each person has a unique path in which they serve God. No other member of Klal Yisrael can play the distinct role of any other member. Each souls posses a set of talents that no other soul has in that same way. We are all individuals. We are all equal in the eyes of God. And yet while we are all different we are also very much the same. Our bodies may be separate but our souls, the very source of our distinction, is the source of our unity. Each soul is an emanation of God. Like rays of the sun, we all flow from the same source. In this sense there is an inherent unity that exists in creation. We are all limbs of one body. Just as a person does not think of their arms or legs as separate from themselves, we should not see any other member of Klal Yisrael as fundamentally other than ourselves. (In fact, as a very dear Talmid, Reb Isaac Shapiro, pointed out the Gematria of the word pakad is equivalent to yachid bikehilla, an individual within a community.)
This is the paradox of otherness in Judaism. Before God created the world there was only Him. God desired that there be something "other" than Himself and so He created the world. Now of course nothing is truly "other" than God and our distance from God is only an illusion. Yet as much as God desires that we experience the illusion of distance He also desires that we overcome the illusion by seeing the unity and oneness of all things. In other words, on the one hand we exist with all of our individual strengths and weaknesses and at the same time we are meant to see the unity of our differences in order to see beyond our otherness. This is the essence of a community. We are not just a group of individuals. We are a unique combination of distinct talents all emanating from one source. The very same soul that makes us unique provides for us the concept of unity.
With this in mind we can understand why Hashem counting us in the Midbar does not have any of the negative effects that we mentioned above. Only a physical counting, one that separates us from the merits of the community, creates a dangerous situation. Ultimately the body dies. The soul is infinite. When we draw attention to our bodies by counting our physical makeup we live in a world of death. In a state of separateness we no longer have the merits of the community to protect us. God is not counting our bodies but our souls. The soul is not subject to death. Pakad means that God highlights the unique talents of our souls and at the same time highlights our unity by drawing attention to the inherent unity of creation. In our soulful state of oneness we are a part of the community and the merits protect us from any harm. This explains why in addition to counting the individuals, the Torah mentions the family, and the father’s house. This was a counting that created cohesiveness. The individuals soul is both unique and communal at the same time.
We now understand that Hashem's counting creates unity but we are still left wondering, why does Hashem count us now? As Klal Yisrael made their preparations to enter into Eretz Yisrael they needed to know how many men they had available to fight in their battles against the seven nations that occupied the land. The battle between Klal Yisrael and the seven nations was not just physical but spiritual as well. In Judaism, seven represents completion. Eretz Yisrael, as the place that has more transparent Godliness than anywhere else, projects the unity of creation. It is the place of ultimate completion. The seven Canaanite nations represent the distortion of that completion. They see completion as disparate parts that have come together but that is not true unity. True unity is the oneness of the soul. To merit entry into Eretz Yisrael, Klal Yisrael would have to embody the authentic concept of unity. When Hashem counted Klal Yisrael he did not count our bodies but our souls. The counting taught us that our differences are beautiful. Far from separating us they reveal our unity. To defeat the seven Canaanite nations our soldiers would have to mirror the unity of Eretz Yisrael. The counting brought this awareness to Klal Yisrael.
Earlier we pointed out a contradiction in Rashi. On the one hand Rashi tells us that Hashem is constantly counting Klal Yisrael but we also see that we are counted at very specific times and only ten times in all of history. We are now ready to explain that both are true. Hashem counts us all the time. Every moment of our lives we can tap into our soul because Hashem is counting us and giving us access to our unique talents and capabilities. While we may not always be aware of this counting, in truth we only need to pay attention and a Jew can feel God's love. There are times when it is important that God express to us his love by counting us in a more revealed fashion. As we are preparing to enter into Eretz Yisrael and we face the dangers of waging war against our enemies, God reminds us of our unbreakable connection to Him. God is not counting us because He has forgotten how many we are. He is counting us so that we know how much we count in His eyes.
This explains why Bamdibar is called Sefer HaPekudim. As Klal Yisrael journeys through the Midbar we are completely surrounded by Godliness. (In fact, the Alter Rebbe explains that the Meraglim did not want to enter into Eretz Yisrael because of the idyllic spiritual life we had in the desert. The spies feared that settling the land, becoming involved in the mundane pursuits of the world, would cause us to fall from our spiritual peak.) In this state, where God's presence was manifest in the Mishkan and we were surrounded by the Ananei HaKavod, our own spiritual essence became revealed. We did not define ourselves by our bodies but by our souls. In other words, we lived in a state where we knew that we mattered to Hashem. Calling Bamidbar Sefer HaPekudim is an appropriate title because it is the essence of the book - this is the time when every Jew knew that they counted.
Counting the Uncountable
The Gemara in Yoma (22b - cited above) tells us that there is a contradiction between two pesukim. On the one hand it says, “And the number of the children of Israel will be like the sand of the sea” and on the other it says, “Which cannot be measured and cannot be counted”. The first passuk indicates that Klal Yisrael will be countable (albeit a very large number) while the second passuk indicates that they will beyond measure. The Gemara answers that when Klal Yisrael does the will of God we will be beyond numbers whereas when we don't fulfill the will of God we will be countable.
But what exactly does the Gemara mean? How could Klal Yisrael ever be beyond measure? Even if we are very large we are still countable.
When someone does not fulfill the word of God, the counting is an ordinary finite counting. They have chosen to live in the finite, physical world and the counting reflects the reality they have chosen to live in. From the perspective of the body we are finite beings. Limited to a particular number. Hence, while we may be large we are countable.
When someone fulfills the word of God the counting is an infinite counting. They have chosen to live in the spiritual worlds and the counting is reflective of that reality. From the perspective of the soul we are connected to the infinite. We are a part of the infinite and therefore we are beyond measure. We could never complete such a counting. This is the counting of Olam Haba. In Olam Haba we live in a dimension that is both within this world and beyond this world. We are counted but we are simultaneously beyond measure.
Now that we are familiar with the idea of a counting that cannot be completed we can turn our attention to an interesting aspect of the counting. There were actually three different headcounts. A census is taken of Klal Yisrael, the Leviim, and the firstborns.
In fact, the Torah tells us that God specifically does not want the Leviim to be counted with the rest of Klal Yisrael.
אַ֣ךְ אֶת־מַטֵּ֤ה לֵוִי֙ לֹ֣א תִפְקֹ֔ד וְאֶת־רֹאשָׁ֖ם לֹ֣א תִשָּׂ֑א בְּת֖וֹךְ בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל:
Only the tribe of Levi you shall not number, and you shall not reckon their sum among the children of Israel.
Rashi (quoting the Medrash) explains:
אך את מטה לוי לא תפקד: כדאי הוא לגיון של מלך להיות נמנה לבדו.
Only the tribe of Levi you shall not number: The legion of the king deserves to be counted on its own.
Rashi seems to be saying that because the Leviim have an elevated role they are worthy of being counted alone but the Meor Einayim understands the Medrash differently. God is one. In the finite world the number one is followed by a second and then a third etc.. In the spiritual world, one has a completely different connotation. He is one and there is no second because God is the only true existence. In fact God's oneness cannot even be counted as one. He exists beyond the concept of numbers. This is the meaning of the passuk in Yeshayahu (2:11) when it says, וְנִשְׂגַּ֧ב יְהֹוָ֛ה לְבַדּ֖וֹ, Hashem is alone. He is the true existence and all of our existence is predicated on His existence. Or as the Medrash in Bereishis Rabbah (68: 9) says God is the space of the world; the world is not His space.
The Meor Einayim explains that this is why the Leviim were counted לבדו, alone. It was not to separate them from the rest of Klal Yisrael but rather that the counting should reflect their connection to Hashem. Just as Hashem is לבדו, alone and beyond enumeration so too the Leviim should be counted לבדו. Just as we said above, when someone is following the will of Hashem they are too numerous too count. This means that because of their elevated spiritual nature they exist both within and beyond the realm of counting. You can count them but the counting will never be completed because of their transcendent reality. So too when it comes to the Leviim. In the finite reality there were only 22,000 Leviim but in the spiritual reality they reflect the oneness of God. This is why the Leviim could not be counted with the rest of Klal Yisrael. There were two fundamentally different countings. The counting of Klal Yisrael could arrive at a conclusion but because of the Dveikus that the Leviim had achieved there counting could never fully be realized.
But then we must ask, if the counting of the Leviim could never be completed, how is it that the Torah gives us a number of the completed counting of the Leviim? Originally, it was not the Leviim but the firstborn of every family that was meant to work in the Mishkan. Because God is the first existence so to speak, it made sense that as a reflection of the oneness of God, the "first" born should serve in the Mishkan (see Maharal, Gevuros Hashem 38.). Due to the sin of Golden Calf the firstborns lost this privilege and the priesthood was transferred to the Leviim. (This is one of the reasons given for the Pidyon HaBen.) Interestingly, the number of firstborns in Klal Yisrael is almost a perfect match with the number of Leviim. The separate counting of the firstborns and the Leviim, matched the Leviim and their firstborn counterparts so that there would be a transfer of the priesthood.
We can now understand how the Leviim were both counted and beyond measure. On the one hand they were capable of being counted because they were reflecting the reality of the firstborns who sinned by the Golden Calf. On the other hand, the Leviim remained in their state of Dveikus to Hashem and therefore they were counted לבדו beyond the realm of numbers.
Still we are troubled. The counting of the Leviim reminds Klal Yisrael of their terrible sin. Up until now we have thought of this counting as one that elevates Klal Yisrael, highlighting each person's unique role and connecting them to every other Jew. Why does Hashem remind them of their sin? Would that not debilitate their psyche?
We find a similar question when examining the language of the passuk which says, שְׂא֗וּ אֶת־רֹאשׁ֙ כָּל־עֲדַ֣ת בְּנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל. While the words translate to "take a census", the literal meaning is raise up the heads of Bnei Yisrael.
The Medrash in Bamidbar Rabbah (1:11) tells us that the word שאו has a dual meaning. On the one hand it can mean to raise up but it can also mean to remove. We see this duality when Yosef interprets the dreams of the Sar HaMashkim and the Sar HaOfim. To the Sar HaMashkim Yosef said:
בְּע֣וֹד | שְׁל֣שֶׁת יָמִ֗ים יִשָּׂ֤א פַרְעֹה֙ אֶת־רֹאשֶׁ֔ךָ וַֽהֲשִֽׁיבְךָ֖ עַל־כַּנֶּ֑ךָ וְנָֽתַתָּ֤ כוֹס־פַּרְעֹה֙ בְּיָד֔וֹ כַּמִּשְׁפָּט֙ הָֽרִאשׁ֔וֹן אֲשֶׁ֥ר הָיִ֖יתָ מַשְׁקֵֽהוּ:
In another three days, Pharaoh will number you [with the other officers], and he will restore you to your position, and you will place Pharaoh's cup into his hand, according to [your] previous custom, when you were his cupbearer.
To the Sar HaOfim Yosef said:
בְּע֣וֹד | שְׁל֣שֶׁת יָמִ֗ים יִשָּׂ֨א פַרְעֹ֤ה אֶת־רֹֽאשְׁךָ֙ מֵֽעָלֶ֔יךָ וְתָלָ֥ה אֽוֹתְךָ֖ עַל־עֵ֑ץ וְאָכַ֥ל הָע֛וֹף אֶת־בְּשָֽׂרְךָ֖ מֵֽעָלֶֽיךָ:
In another three days, Pharaoh will remove your head from you and hang you on a gallows, and the birds will eat your flesh off you."
In both interpretations Yosef uses the word שאו but with very different meanings. Yosef tells the Sar HaMashkim that he will be שאו, restored (raised up), to his former position whereas Yosef tells the Sar HaOfim that his head will be שאו, removed, from his body.
Keeping in mind the dual connotations the Medrash explains that if Klal Yisrael will be meritorious they will be שאו, raised up. If not then they will be שאו, removed.
But why does the Torah choose to tell us this message now? The whole point of the counting is to empower Klal Yisrael. Hashem highlights their individual strengths and at the same time unifies them as a community. This feeling of empowerment is what gives our soldiers the physical and spiritual strength to conquer Eretz Yisrael. Why does Hashem threaten them that if they are not worthy they will perish? It seems to go against the very purpose of the counting to begin with!
Empowerment means accountability. Everyone has a unique role to play in this world. Knowing that we have a unique mission empowers us but it also obligates us. If we fail to play our role we have deprived the world of what we are meant to provide. God is telling Klal Yisrael that because we have all have specific talents we will be held accountable if we don't use those talents for our God given mission. Because we are all unified each one of us is responsible for the other. When we see someone who is falling it is our obligation to lift them up (שאו) otherwise they will be removed (שאו). Accountability does not debilitate. Just the opposite is true. When we know that we will be held accountable for our actions we are being told that our behavior is important. A failure to act appropriately could result in the loss of our position. This was the case with the firstborns of Klal Yisrael who lost their right to the Kehuna because of the sin of the Golden Calf. As we enter into Eretz Yisrael, a land where if we don't behave appropriately we will be vomited out (Vayikra 18:28), it was important to remind Klal Yisrael that their actions will have significant consequences. But this should not depress us. Clearly our actions make a difference otherwise they would not be met with such significant repercussions.
There is an even deeper message here as well. The Leviim were counted to match them with the firstborns of Klal Yisrael. While it is true that the firstborns lost their coveted position of the Kehuna, they remain connected through the Leviim who are now their counterparts. So while it is true that the message of accountability empowers us and inspires us to action, it is also true that even if we fall we remain forever connected. This too is an important message for Klal Yisrael. As we take upon ourselves the mission of being worthy of entering into Eretz Yisrael it is critical to know that though we may fail and ultimately be exiled, our connection to God remains intact. The feeling of safety and security that this message provides is the baseline for a healthy relationship with Hashem. It is the job of the Leviim who are Daveik to Hashem to שאו, raise us up and remind us that we are connected even we are שאו, removed.
Counting Prepares Us For Matan Torah
Shavuos is the Yom Tov in which we celebrate Matan Torah.
Two things were necessary for the Torah to be given to Klal Yisrael.
First, Klal Yisrael would need to become aware of the infinite powers of the soul that resides within. Second, they would need to see the underlying unity of all of existence.
The 49 days from Pesach to Shavous are a period of spiritual elevation. There are seven basic emotions that make up our soul. Slavery is not only a function of being enslaved to another but we can even be enslaved to ourselves when our spiritual makeup is distorted. Each of the seven weeks between Pesach and Shavous are dedicated to calibrating one of the seven emotions. Each of the seven weeks are further divided into seven days. So each week we examine an emotional attribute of the soul in all seven dimensions of that attribute. After 49 days of counting the Omer we have calibrated the seven attributes of the soul and we have now completely left our personal Mitzrayim. We are now worthy of receiving the Torah.
But what does counting have to do with personal growth? Why do we need to count the days in order to calibrate our soul? As we have said, counting in Judaism does not reduce us to a number but rather highlights the unique talents of the soul. When a body is counted it is just one of many but when a soul is counted it raises awareness of the important mission for which we alone were created.
In addition counting creates unity because from the perspective of the soul we are all one entity. By counting the 49 days and calibrating the seven attributes of the soul we become one with every other member of Klal Yisrael.
וַיִּסְע֣וּ מֵֽרְפִידִ֗ים וַיָּבֹ֨אוּ֙ מִדְבַּ֣ר סִינַ֔י וַיַּֽחֲנ֖וּ בַּמִּדְבָּ֑ר וַיִּֽחַן־שָׁ֥ם יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל נֶ֥גֶד הָהָֽר:
They journeyed from Rephidim, and they arrived in the desert of Sinai, and they encamped in the desert, and Israel encamped there opposite the mountain. (Shemos 19:1)
ויחן שם ישראל: כאיש אחד בלב אחד, אבל שאר כל החניות בתרעומת ובמחלוקת:
and Israel encamped there:Heb. וַיִחַן, [the singular form, denoting that they encamped there] as one man with one heart, but all the other encampments were [divided] with complaints and with strife.
Whereas every other encampment involved machlokes, when Klal Yisrael encamped by Har Sinai they were one man with one heart. How did they achieve such an incredible state of unity? Through the counting they became aware of their soul and its inherent connection to every other soul. In this way Klal Yisrael achieved the ultimate state of unity. And now, just as Hashem is one, so too Klal Yisrael is one and worthy of receiving God's Torah.
In preparation for our annual recreation of the the giving of the Torah it is appropriate for us to read Parshas Bamidbar. When we take to heart how counting is a gesture of love, one that unites us to our soul, to our talents, to our mission, and to every other member of Klal Yisrael, we can once again bring about the same consciousness that made us worthy of receiving the Torah in the first place. In this way we are prepare oursleves for a world in which God's oneness is manifest and we can only be counted in a fashion that will never be completed. As the Navi Zechariah (14:9) says:
וְהָיָ֧ה יְהֹוָ֛ה לְמֶ֖לֶךְ עַל־כָּל־הָאָ֑רֶץ בַּיּ֣וֹם הַה֗וּא יִֽהְיֶ֧ה יְהֹוָ֛ה אֶחָ֖ד וּשְׁמ֥וֹ אֶחָֽד:
And the Lord shall become King over all the earth; on that day shall the Lord be one, and His name one.