Community > Jewish Life > Bamidbar: the Second Roll-Call of Israel

Bamidbar: the Second Roll-Call of Israel

Nechama Leibowitz
reprinted courtesy of the Jewish Agency for Israel Education Department

And the lord spoke unto Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the tabernacle of the congregation, on the first day of the second month, in the second year after they were come out of the land of Egypt, saying, Take ye the sum of all the congregation of the children of Israel, after their families, by the house of their fathers, with the number of their names, every male by their polls; From twenty years old and upward, all that are able to go forth to war in Israel: thou and Aaron shall number them by their armies. (Numbers 1:1-3)

The fourth book of the Pentateuch, Bamidbar, opens with the census conducted by Moses and Aaron of all the tribes from which it derives it’s name “Numbers”. The first chapter is replete with numbers of each tribe and the total aggregate. This is also not the first census taken of the children of Israel. They had already been numbered prior to the erection of the Tabernacle (Exodus 30, 11:16; 38, 25-26). The sockets of the Tabernacle were made from the proceeds of the money contributed by those that were numbered..

In our sidra they are numbered again; every detail is carefully given including the date – “on the first day of the second (i.e. Iyar) month in the second year” – one month after the erection of the Tabernacle.

The question that immediately arises is what need had the divine law to include this minute statistical data? What moral purpose does it serve for future generations and why had Moses been commanded so solemnly to number them a second time, on this particular date? Our common sense interpreters, the leading representative of whom is Rashbam (Rashi’s grandson) proffers a clear – cut explanation.

“Take the number of all the congregation”: This was on account of the fact that they had to enter Eretz Israel and those from twenty years and upwards were eligible to go forth in the army into battle. For on the twentieth day of the second month the matter was broached, as it is written in Numbers 10, 11,29: “We are journeying to the place which the Lord hath promised to give to you”; for this reason the Holy One blessed be He ordered them to be numbered at the beginning of this month.

This census, according to this explanation, was therefore of a military nature in order to determine the forces at Moses’ disposal and organize them for battle. This seems reasonable enough especially since the census only applied to those who had reached the age of twenty and upward, an age which was considered also by our Sages as the ideal one as far as physical endurance and capacity when they said “twenty year old to pursue” (Pirkei Avot). This explanation receives added confirmation from the fact that the Levites were not numbered along with the rest of the tribes, as it is written:

Only thou shalt not number the tribe of Levi, neither take the sum of them among the children of Israel: But thou shalt appoint the Levites over the tabernacle of testimony, and over all the vessels thereof, and over all things that belong to it: they shall bear the tabernacle, and all the vessels thereof; and they shall minister unto it, and shall encamp round about the tabernacle. (Numbers 1:49-50)

It is clear from here that the Levites were not numbered because of their special role in the sacred service on account of which they were relieved from military duties.

But there are still a number of difficulties which remain unexplained. Why did the Torah elaborate so much on the details of the census instead of merely informing us of the total number of Israelites at the disposal of Moses for the purpose of battle? Nahmanides, who seeks to distil the maximum moral and mystical significance from the sacred text suggests three approaches to this problem:

It was necessary for the Torah to record the total number after giving the details because Moses and Aaron had been commanded to ascertain the number of the people and the number of each tribe, for this was the manner of kings to number the people. But I have not understood the reason for this commandment, why God ordered it (i.e. to record the general total). It was necessary to know the number of each tribe separately for the purpose of the arrangement of the camp according to standards, but why was it necessary to know the general number? Perhaps the idea was to make known His loving kindness unto them, that when their fathers went down to Egypt they numbered only 70 souls and now they were as the sand of the sea. And after every pestilence and plague He numbered them in order to make known that Though He woundeth, His hands make whole again, in accordance with what our Sages said “out of an abundance of love for them He numbers them frequently”.

Further he that comes before the father of all the prophets (Moses) and his brother the consecrated of the Lord (Aaron) and is known to them by his name gains thereby merit and life… For they would place upon them their eye for good and beseech mercy for them: ” May the Lord God of your fathers add unto you according to this a thousand times” and not diminish your number … I have further seen in Bamidbar Rabbah on the text “With the number of their names… by their polls” as follows: The Holy One blessed be He ordered Moses to number them in a manner that would confer honor and greatness on each one of them, individually. Not that you should say to the head of the family: “How many are there in your family? How many children have you?” But rather all of them should pass before you in awe and with the honor due to them and you should number them. That is what is meant when it states: “According to the number of names from the age of twenty years and upwards by their polls”. Perhaps in addition this was also the manner of kings when going to war. Now the Children of Israel were ready to enter the land and do battle with the kings of the Amorites who were on the other side of the Jordan, as it is said “We are journeying towards the place which the Lord has said”; and Moses and the Princes required to know the number of soldiers available… For the Torah does not rely on miracles that one should pursue a thousand, and this is the reason for the statement “all that are able to go forth to war in Israel”. (Nahmanides on Numbers 1:45)

Nahmanides gives here three reasons, mentioning last the strategic, military consideration which Rashbam referred to. Nahmanides in emphasizing that we must not rely on miracles but must make all the necessary preparations for meeting the enemy is true to his approach in other places, particularly with regard to the spies, the dispatch of which into the Holy Land he regarded as a correct expedient adopted by all conquerors, since the Torah would not advocate relying on miracles. Nevertheless, we have no greater believer in miracles, both hidden and revealed, in Jewish history than Nahmanides.

It was he who said: No one of us can have a portion in the law of Moses our teacher until we believe that in all matters and circumstances affecting us we are surrounded by miracles and that they are not just natural and ordinary phenomena, whether concerning the public or the individual. All happens according to the decree on High. On this same theme Nahmanides makes another observation:

The Torah orders matters to be conducted in the normal human fashion, leaving the miracles to be performed for the God – fearing in secret, since it is not the divine desire to change the nature of the world. (Nahmanides on Deuteronomy 20:8)

We may learn from these statements a valuable lesson regarding the maintaining of the judicious balance between trust in God and self – help, avoiding the twin dangers of relying overmuch on God in the sense of: “the heavens will be merciful”, and human vainglory in the sense of: “my power and the might of mine hand have gotten me this wealth”. On account of this Nahmanides does not rest content with the strategic rational motivation of this census but adds a further reason and explains as well why this numbering had to be individual.

Special importance is attached to this latter consideration in our days, in view of the ideologies that subject the individual to the mass and see in him a cog in the machine of state assuming that if one human being is destroyed there is always another one to take his place.

In contrast to this, Nahmanides emphasizes that the census was personal and individual “according to their polls” impressing on us the value and sterling worth of each and every soul which is a unique specimen of divine creativity and a world of its own. Isaac Arama in his Akedat Yizhak calls attention to this same feature of the census which came to demonstrate that:

They were not just like animals or material objects, but each one had an importance of his own like a king or priest and that indeed God had shown special love towards them and this is the significance of mentioning each one of them by name and status; for they were all equal and individual in status.

The other reason mentioned by Nahmanides, alluded to first, and probably first in importance in his opinion, is the fact that this census was designed to call attention to the miracle of our existence. This idea is uppermost in the verse which we recite on the Seder night in relating the miracle of the Exodus:

Thy fathers went down into Egypt with threescore and ten persons; and now the Lord thy God hath made thee as the stars of heaven for multitude. (Deuteronomy 21:22)

Nahmanides further points out that this census took place after the pestilence and plague. He points to the moral of Jewish history: we have not succumbed in spite of decimation through suffering and persecution. On the contrary we have increased and multiplied.

Our sidra refers them in the dry language of statistics and numbers to the miracle of Israel’s survival. This idea is phrased in philosophical terms by Bahya in his Hovot Ha  evavot:

If someone will in these days (when the age of miracles is no more) seek a parallel to what took place in our ancient history (i.e. the miracles in the Bible), let him look frankly at our status among the nations from the time of the exile and our relationships with them. In spite of the fact that we neither publicly nor privately fall in with their ways and they are aware of this, it is as He our Creator has promised us (Leviticus 26, 44): ” And yet for all that, when they be in the land of their enemies, I will not cast them away, neither will I abhor them…” and it is said (Psalms 124:1-2): “If it had not been the Lord who was on our side now may Israel say; If it had not been the Lord who was on our side, when men rose up against us…”