Counting: Challenges and Opportunities
The count of the Jewish people as it appears in this week’s parsha is always
a difficult issue to appreciate and understand. What are we to learn from
all of the detailed descriptions and seemingly exact numbers? The general
lesson that every Jew counts – and is to be counted, is most apparent. But
that lesson can be learned from a much more concise précis of the population
of the Jews than the long description that appears in the parsha.
I think that the messenger here is itself the message. By that I mean that
the Torah wishes to express its relationship to the Jewish people simply by
dwelling on an “unnecessary” lengthy detailed counting of its numbers. For
those with whom we have a loving relationship, there are no unnecessary or
superfluous acts or gestures. The rabbis compare this type of relationship,
in a wry way, to one counting one’s money.
For instance, the criterion for the speed and intensity of reciting the
words of prayer is the rate of speed that one would use in counting valuable
coins. The care in counting is itself the expression of the underlying
attachment to what is being counted. I always note that people leaving the
ATM cash dispenser invariably check the bills that they have received. This
is not only an act of prudence; it is an act of affection and importance. So
the count of the Jews in the parsha, even in its detail and length, is
logical and makes perfect sense.
Another understanding of this issue can be found in the description of the
counters themselves and not only in the description of the counted ones.
Moshe, Aharon, Elazar and Itamar are the leaders of the Jewish people. They
are responsible for the physical and spiritual welfare of the Jewish people
in its totality. Part of their task is to somehow know all of their millions
of constituents – to have some sort of relationship and affinity to each
The leaders of Israel always saw themselves as being parents of all Jews.
Some Jews crave affection and others need very tough love. The enormous
diversity – twelve different tribes that are counted separately before being
united in one total number of the whole people – of the Jewish people, is
emphasized by the sheer individual counting of them.
The responsibility for the fate of the Jewish people is a heavy burden for
leaders to bear. But it is an unavoidable one that automatically comes with
the posts of leadership. And the counters of the Jewish people are
themselves the leaders of the people, aware at all times that the people
rely upon their leadership and wisdom. And they must also be aware that each
of those counted are somehow to be accommodated in their needs and development.
So counting the Jewish people are not empty numbers to the leaders of
Israel, but rather the list of challenges and opportunities presented
before them. May both the counters and the counted of Israel in our day be
great in numbers, spirit and accomplishments.
Rabbi Berel Wein