Parashat Bamidbar gives an exhaustive census of the Israelite nation in the wilderness, followed by the mapping of the wilderness encampment.
But what is the purpose of counting the nation? Why does God instruct Moses to take a census of the Children of Israel, and why at this historical juncture?
Why count the people of Israel in the wilderness? What is the purpose?
Do they ever have a national census in your country? Is a national head-count a depersonalizing process or is it a procedure that actually acknowledges each and every citizen?
Rashbam suggests that the function is primarily of a military nature:
“At this time, they need to journey to the Land of Israel, and the twenty-year-olds are of age will be drafted into the military. [They will leave Sinai] on the 20th of the 2nd month when the cloud rose (see 10:11), and there Moses says: “We are travelling to the place which God has spoken of…”(10:29) and thus, at the start of the second month (1:1) God issued a command to count them.”
This military objective explains much of the language in chapter 1:
“From twenty years old and upward, all in Israel who are able to go to war, you and Aaron shall list them, battalion by battalion.” (1:3)
The specific stimulus for this national tally is the imminent advent of war; the military leadership must build their strategic plans on the basis of the size of the army, hence the need to count the naion.
2. A Spiritual Focus: But when we open Chapter 2, we find a very different emphasis. The entire camp surrounds the Tabernacle.
“The Israelites shall camp each with his standard, under the banners of their ancestral house; they shall camp around the tent of Meeting at a distance… When the tent of meeting shall set out with the camp of the Levites, it shall be in the midst of the camps; as they encamp, so shall they set out, each in position, standard by standard.” (2:1,17)
A nation at war needs to concern itself with military tactics, but here, the focal interest would appear to be the centrality of the Mishkan/Tent of Meeting, and the concern that each tribe shall encamp and journey in a locus that expresses a relationship to the spiritual center. For this reason, Rashi asserts that the stimulus to this national census is in fact the completion of the Mishkan:
“On the first of Nissan (1st calendrical month) the Mishkan was established, and on the first of Iyar (the 2nd month) he counted them.” (1:1)
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch echoes this emphasis in his reading of the opening verse of Bamidbar:
“The census was taken in the wilderness… The addition of the words, “Sinai, in the Tent of Meeting,”(1:1) indicates that this census was dedicated to the Torah; the Torah, given at Mount Sinai, with the Tent of Meeting being the place for accepting responsibility to follow its commandments.”
In that case, we might suggest that the main focus is not on the counting of the people, but the reorganization of the camp. Now the nation is zoned in tribal units around the spiritual center, the hub of the Mishkan. This is less a war campaign and more a spiritual refocusing (see the opening passage of the Ramban.
It is fascinating that these verses, these chapters seem to offer such divergent perspectives, such different interpretations. They almost seem to reflect two sides a a national religious value system!
But let us return to the head-count. It works for the military theme; but does it connect with the spiritual “God in the center” aspect of these chapters? Here we encounter a third idea:
3. Names, and ancestry.
“...God said to Moses to count the Israelites with honor and grandeur for each individual. Do not say to each household head: ‘How many are in your clan?’, ‘How many sons do you have?’ Rather, each individual should pass in front of you with reverence and honor and you shall count them. This is what the verse says, "... by the number of the names, from the age of twenty years and up, according to their head count." (1:2)” (Nachmanides to 1:3)
There is a sense – see 1:2 – that the census emphasises the lineage of each person. Sometimes, a national survey can demean a person; each individual is reduced to a mere number, an infinitesimal statistic – but not here; here it is all “with reverence and honor” as each person is give a full recognition by his name and those of his ancestors.
“The individual citizens do not form the national congregation directly and immediately. The all-comprising national collective consists of two concentric circles. The congregation is formed by tribes and every tribe by families.” (Hirsch 1:2)
So this is a radical departure from the depersonalizing census; this census reminds each and every individual of their family lineage and their tribal calling, that each person matters! If this count is about injecting a spiritual focus into the camp of Israel, then this is performed by asking each person to focus upon their unique family legacy, their tribal mission, their individuality, and to ask each and every person what they can do for the national effort.
So please discuss:
Which reason do you think is stronger, the military explanation or the spiritual explanation?
One might say that certain verses perceive this count as secular and functional; other verses and commentators see it as spiritual and motivational. Looking at our nation today – at your community, or at Israel – which is more vital to our national mission; the national or the religious?
Does your sense of your family and community stimulate you to a greater feeling of mission, to a higher calling?
What sits at the center of your “camp”, your community or your world? Is it your computer, your friends? School, synagogue, community? Is it important to have a spiritual “center”?