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Posted on June 6, 2024 (5784) By Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein | Series: | Level:

Take a census of the entire assembly of the Bnei Yisrael[1]

The reason for the census? As Rashi explains, Hashem showed His love for them through His repeated counts. He counted them as they left Egypt, and again after their ranks were diminished in the aftermath of the Golden Calf. Now He counts them again, a short while after causing His Presence to rest among the people.

As Ramban points out, however, the phrase “se’u es rosh” literally means “take the head.” Figuratively, it is used in Chumash to mean different – actually opposing – ideas. It can mean raising up a person to greatness, as when Yosef interpreted the dream of the wine steward,[2] predicting that he would be restored to his position of prominence. It can also mean the very opposite, as Yosef used it just a few verses later[3] in speaking to the chief baker. There, se’u es rosh meant “off with your head!” Indeed, there are two midrashim regarding our pasuk. One interprets the taking the head to be positioning the Bnei Yisrael in prominence and endearment to G-d. Another, however, sees it akin to instructions to the royal executioner to detach the head of a particular individual from his shoulders.

There is no real conflict between the midrashim. Both are correct; one is the cause of the other. In principle, the sin of the meraglim can be mitigated and excused. They seemed to betray a lack of confidence in Hashem and His promise to deliver them safely into the Land. Yet, this is very understandable. They really betrayed a lack of confidence in themselves! They were consumed with guilt over the eigel ha-zahav. They felt unworthy, unfit for the promise of Divine help that Hashem had given earlier. Without extraordinary Divine assistance, they could not possibly survive a series of wars with the powerful inhabitants of the Land.

Their critical error was in not reading the Divine tea leaves. In our pasuk, Hashem displays His ahavah for the Bnei Yisrael, despite their sin. This should have been all the indication they needed that He was not going to lead them into the Land, just to abandon them, as punishment for their aveirah. Their guilt was well placed, but it should not have caused their paralysis. They should have recognized the reassuring message Hashem was sending them in this census, even in the face of their having failed Him. The se’u es rosh thus served as a statement of their importance. Ignoring it, it became a source of their culpability for the sin of the meraglim, as if empowering the royal executioner.

A bit later, Moshe is instructed “not [to] count shevet Levi…among the Bnei Yisrael.”[4] Rashi explains that since the Leviim did not play a role in the sins of the eigel or the meraglim, they should not be counted with the rest of the nation. Following the above, this is easy to understand. The counting of the people acted in two ways. It showed Hashem’s love for them, but also magnified their culpability for the chet ha-meraglim. For the Leviim, only the former applied. Their counting was solely a sign of Divine love for them. It did not have the down side that was there for the rest of the people. They deserved a counting that only conveyed a message of Divine love for them.

  1. Bamidbar 1:2
  2. Bereishis 40:13
  3. Bereishis 40:19
  4. Bamidbar 1:49