Counting to One
שְׂאוּ, אֶת-רֹאשׁ כָּל-עֲדַת בְּנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל, לְמִשְׁפְּחֹתָם, לְבֵית אֲבֹתָם--בְּמִסְפַּר שֵׁמוֹת, כָּל-זָכָר לְגֻלְגְּלֹתָם:
Take a census of the entire assembly of the Children of Israel according to their families, according to their fathers’ house, by number of the names, every male according to their head count.
This parasha begins the fourth book of the Torah known as Numbers. Although the Hebrew name Bemidbar does not translate to Numbers, it is still an apt description for the theme of this section. We begin this Shabbat’s reading with Moses being appointed to take a census of the Jewish people. We know that this was not the first time that the Jewish people were counted nor was it the last. The question that we should ask is what purpose these tallies served to God (especially considering that He presumably already knows how many people there were without it)?
Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki (11th Century, France) in his commentary on the Torah explains that Because of Israel’s dearness before Him, He counts them at all times. When they departed from Egypt, He counted them. When they fell at the sin of the Golden Calf, He counted them to determine the number of those who remained. And here, when He came to rest His Divine Presence upon them, He counted them. According to this approach, God’s purpose for counting us was not for Him, rather it was for us to feel a sense of self-worth. Although we lived in a tribal formation, we were still considered individuals who were all worthy of being counted.
The word used for the census is “Se’u” which literally means to lift up. The count was meant to raise ourselves up by the realization that we are all important in the eyes of God. This is the way that God shows his love for us.
This parasha is almost always read the week preceding the holiday of Shavuot. When we received the Torah at Mt. Sinai we were not counted. One would think that of all the times that God showed his love to the Jewish nation the Revalation at Sinai should have made the list. Why didn’t it?
Perhaps we can answer that the verse describes the Jewish people’s encampment around Mt. Sinai in the singular. It reads ויחן שם ישראל נגד ההר, and Israel camped facing the mountain (Exodus 19:2). The Hebrew word for “camped” is written in the singular instead of the plural. Tradition teaches us that the Jewish people were there not as 600,000 individuals, but as one person with one heart. We were all united together to receive the Torah. That is why there was no necessity for a count.
Although we can each accomplish amazing things working alone as individuals, we can achieve much more when we work together. God counts us when we are individuals to show us how appreciated we all are in His eyes. Though, the ultimate accomplishment is when we are united, work together and are like one person with one heart. At that point God does not need to count us, it’s then that He reveals Himself to us.
On this holiday of Shavuot we pray that just as the Jewish people in the Wilderness merited the unity that brought forth the giving of the Torah, so too should we merit that same love for one another as we await the final herald of our redemption.