Strength in Numbers
It is interesting to note that the count of the Jewish people in the
desert that appears in this week's parsha is a count of each of the tribes
of Israel individually - with the entire population of the Jewish people
divided into four separate groupings, and the kohanim and Levites forming
another separate grouping completely. Why all of this particularism? Why
is the Torah not contented to give a single population figure for the
entire Jewish nation?
I believe that the underlying message here is the reinforcement of the
Torah's view of the Jewish people and in fact of all of humankind, as many
different individuals and never as a monolithic whole. In fact, this is
the origin of the Torah's opinion that one should never count people
individually in a direct and personal fashion. No two people are alike,
and no two people are bound to hold exactly like opinions.
There are groupings and tribes that make up the Jewish people today and
throghout all of Jewish history. This realization should make for a more
tolerant and less bitterly divisive Jewish society. The Torah is therefore
determined to treat the count of the Jewish people as a count of
individuals instead of as a count of a large group or whole nation. It
wishes us to realize that the Jewish people really are made up of so many
different components and differing individuals and personalities and the
Torah demands of us a maturity to deal with this omnipresent situation of
the human condition.
Another point that strikes me about this week's parsha is the relative
smallness of today's Jewish population relative to the total count that
appears in this week's parsha. The numbers that appear in the parsha
indicate a total poulation of about three million people - old, young, men
and women. Three millennia later the Jewish people worldwide appear to
constitute approximately fifteen million people. Natural growth alone over
such a long period of time should provide us with a much more numerous
Jewish people. Yet the Torah itself predicted that the Jewish people would
always be the smallest in numbers of all peoples.
Exile, pogroms, assimilation, conversions and the Holocaust have all taken
a depressing toll on our numbers. Yet in spite of our lack of numbers we
have never lost our influence and effect on world society and
civilization. The Torah teaches us that numbers are necessary - there can
be no Judaism without live Jews - but numbers are not everything. It is
noted that the Torah already indicated in the desert that population
growth is problematic with the Jewish people.
During the forty years in the desert the Jewish population did not
increase. The count at the end of the forty years eerily remained similar
to the count in this week's parsha. Individuals matter greatly. That is
only one of the many contributions of the Jewish people to the human story.
Rabbi Berel Wein