by Rabbi Yaakov Menken
"Take a census of the entire congregation of Israel, according to their
families, according to the house of their fathers." [1:2]
Why does G-d command a count at this point? From the commentary of Rabbi
Shamshon Raphael Hirsch, we can derive two complimentary answers to this
First of all, a count done in the wilderness serves no political or
economic purpose. Rather, the count "testifies on itself" that it was done
only for the sake of Torah, as evidenced by the previous verse which reads,
"in the desert of Sinai, in the Tent of Meeting" - the Torah was given on
Sinai, and it's "center" was the Tent of Meeting. The census served a
What was this religious purpose of the count? As Rabbi Hirsch points out,
throughout Sefer Vayikra, the Book of Leviticus, we learned of all the
obligations which the Nation of Israel had to the Mishkan, the Sanctuary.
We also learned, at the end, about the sacrifices which each individual
could offer as a voluntary commitment.
With all of this, a person might think that the nation could fulfill its
obligations without him and his contribution, and as for himself, he could
decide to offer no voluntary sacrifices of his own. We do not see that
every individual is important as an individual.
The census, then, tells us exactly this. Each person is unique, different
from every other, with a unique function and unique contribution to make.
Although this count included only the soldiers, males over age twenty, they
served as public representatives for the larger nation. The count itself
indicated how each individual was part of a family unit, part of a larger
tribe, and a crucial building block in the larger whole. This count send a
message for all generations: we each have something to contribute, and the
entire Nation needs us!
Text Copyright © 1997 Rabbi Yaakov Menken and Project Genesis,
The author is the Director of Project Genesis.