E Pluribus Pluribus1
Take a census of the entire assembly of the Children of Yisrael according
to their families, according to their fathers’ household, by number of the
names, every male according to their families’ head count.
This does seem to be a long-winded way of saying, “Count the Jews.” The
useful information that this census supplied was the strength of the “entire
assembly,” or how many people could be called upon to further the spiritual
work of the Jewish people. Why does the pasuk – and so many repetitions of
it – take so long to get there?
The Torah here comments on the birth of nations in general, and the Jewish
nation in particular. Our pasuk describles the process whereby a collection
of people becomes a nation.
Some people might see much ado about nothing in this. If people decide to
call themselves a nation for any reason at all, who is going to stop them?
Yet calling yourself a nation does not a nation make. People can deceive
themselves into thinking that they have become some important entity, when
they are nothing more than a collection of unrelated souls hiding behind a
noun. Others might see coming together in response to a particular language,
or anthem, or flag as evidence of nationhood. Yet if the ties that bind be
so superficial and unimportant as that, any pretense to nationhood can
The Jewish nation is called Bnei Yisrael – literally, the children of Yaakov
Avinu. They were Bnei Yisrael when they were no more than twelve brothers,
and they remain Bnei Yisrael when their ranks swell into the millions.
Ultimately, they are a nation because they subscribe to a single mission
statement, the ideals for which Yaakov lived and labored. The Torah nation
cannot be simply a portion of mankind that happened to find themselves
sharing a past history. Something real and substantial must hold them together.
Becoming part of that entity, though, is not simply a matter of
identification with a set of goals. The Torah nation comes into being as a
result of two simpler forms of aggregation. People must first become
“families,” and those families become “fathers’ households.” (This last
phrase certainly denotes what we call “tribes.”) The tribes come together as
a nation. The point of our pasuk is that even after they associate on the
national level, the simpler forms of connection remain not only valid, but
These levels of identification underscore the richness and diversity within
Klal Yisrael. People are not all made of the same cloth. Diversity brings
many advantages and blessings, but we can ignore all of them and still find
purpose in the Torah’s showcasing it in our pasuk, in the first census. In
shaping the contours of a Jewish nation, the Torah broadcasts to the world
what kind of people can be touched by its message. If diversity would not be
Jewish feature, Torah could be written off by many. They would not have to
reject it, but merely see it as relevant only to a given sub-community, or a
special background, or a particular interest group. Torah, they would be
able to argue, only suits those who possess those particular traits and
characteristics. The Torah banishes such thoughts by including under its
banner all sorts of differences – the outgrowths of so many different tribes
and families. By stressing that the Jewish nation is built from many very
different components, the Torah announces itself as relevant to all.
In fact, the Torah takes this principle further. People were counted through
each person handing over his half-shekel, and proclaiming his name along
with his family and tribal affiliations. Each individual, therefore, had to
assert his value as an individual. The nation would be built by making use
of the unique talents and capabilities of each person. Every man would have
a contribution to make, and no two contributions would ever be identical.
It was to be a nation that celebrated difference, rather than repressed it.
1. Based on the Hirsch Chumash, Bamidbar 1:2