Posted on May 22, 2014 by Naomi Minsky
The opening chapter of Sefer Bemidbar looks like a page taken from a statistical text book. As is fitting for its English name ‘Numbers’ the majority of the chapter is a long list of numbers. The chapter describes God commanding Moses and Aaron to take a census. It continues by providing a detailed record of the results.
The census takes place on the second month, of the second year following the departure from Egypt. Is there any significance in placing the census at this point in the biblical narrative? The book of Bemidbar opens a series of encounters with nations who are hostile to the Israelites. Perhaps the numbering of the Israelites is a military survey. God wants to know the total number of men who are of ‘arms bearing age’ to calculate their potential success in the coming adventures.
This approach accounts for the specific focus of the census on men of military age. Yet, it raises a theological question. Why does God need to ‘count’ the Israelites? It would be a logical assumption that God knows the total number of the population without having to go through the ordeal of a census.
Rashi suggests that God’s need to count is not driven by logistical concerns. The act of counting is a sign of God’s love for her people. He draws on Midrash Bemidbar Rabbah to show that God counts at other points in the narrative. It is not unique to our Parasha. God counts after the Israelites left Egypt, after the violence surrounding the golden calf and when God provides the laws for the building of the Mishkan. If we follow Rashi’s reasoning then God’s counting affirms her relationship with the Israelites. At key moments in the narrative God takes note of the total number of the Jewish people. It is God’s way of acknowledging the Israelites as they progress on their journey. It has a similar impact of a youth leader who counts their chanichim before and after events. God wants to take note of who is present. The census is an act of God recognizing and showing love towards her people.
How is counting a symbolic act of God’s love towards the Israelites? We learn in the Midrash that Rashi cites that counting provides God with pleasure. ‘They are her hosts and she is eager to know their “value”. God counts them an infinite amount of times each time affirming that there are people who will ‘do her will’. God does not need to count to know the outcome. Presumably God knows the sum total of the Israelites without counting. The act of counting is itself important to God. She gains joy by appreciating what she has.
A possible objection to this approach is the focus of the census on men of ‘arms bearing age’. This detail suggests that the census is linked to a military objective. The Midrash also uses language that suggests God is counting potential soldiers. In the Midrash God takes pride in her ‘צבאות’. This term means hosts and is associated with a type of warrior. It is interesting to compare this census with the incident concerning King David. God commands King David to take a census of the Jewish people residing in the land. After the census is complete David suddenly confesses that he has sinned greatly. He receives a heavy punishment. It is not clear in the text what the sin is and why David deserves the punishment. David gives the task of conducting the census to Joab his commander in chief. This could suggest that David is using the census to know his capability in war. His sin was not simply presenting a total of the people as God had commanded. The Midrash on the other hand, presents the act of counting as God appreciating the quality of her young men.
All too often when we count we follow King David’s approach. We want to know what we have because we need it for a purpose. The money in my bank account will enable me to buy something. The amount of friends I have on Facebook will increase my networking ability. We are unable to see the beauty in what we have because we are so caught up in how to use it to promote ourselves. How different would our lives look if we followed God’s example? We would count to appreciate. We would look at our relationships and possessions for what they are in their own right rather than what they can do for us. This is an act of love. It is an opportunity to step outside of ourselves and to fully recognize the other.