Sefer Bamidbar (Numbers) begins with a detailed census of the Bnai Yisroel (Sons of Israel) during their second year in the desert.
Nisan (April) 15, 2448 – Exodus.
Sivan (May) 6, 2448 (7 weeks later) – Jews received the Torah.
Tamuz (July) 17, 2448 (40 days later) – Golden Calf.
Tishrei (September) 10, 2449 (80 days later) – Second set of Luchos (tablets).
Tishrei 11, 2449 (the next day) – Construction of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) began.
Rosh Chodesh (1st day of the month) Nissan 2449 (6 months later) – Mishkan fully assembled and dedicated.
Rosh Chodesh Iyar (1 month later) – Sefer Bamidbar begins with the census.
Rashi explains that the census was an expression of Hashem’s (G-d’s) love for His children. The Ramban elaborates on Rashi and explains that the census indicated that each Jew was significant to G-d. Furthermore, it revealed the miraculous growth of the nation. Despite 210 years of enslavement and persecution, the family of 70 had grown to a nation of almost 3 million. A fact that would otherwise have been taken for granted or ignored was now thrust into the focus of the nation’s consciousness. The exile and persecution not withstanding, G-d had fulfilled His promise to the Avos (Patriarchs) and Imahos (Matriarchs) and had watched over the development of their children. The census revealed the miracle and the miracle revealed G-d’s love.
The Ramban’s comment deserves a second look. It suggests that the detailed nature of the census revealed G-d’s love for the Jewish people more than if the Torah had stated the bottom line of 603,550 men between 20 and 60 years of age plus the 22,000 Leviyim over the age of 30 days. In fact, the detailed nature of the census is more detailed than most realize.
Starting with the tribe of Reuven (1:20) and concluding with the tribe of Naftoli (1:42) Moshe counted every male between the ages of twenty and sixty. For each tribe, there is a sub-total and at the end, (1:46) the Torah stated the sum total of 603,550 specifying that the total did not include the tribe of Layvie. But that’s not all…
Starting with the second chapter, (2:1) the Torah detailed the placement of the tribes in the organization of the desert camp. However, in addition to stating the tribal positions and groupings, the Torah repeats the sub- totals for each of the tribes and at the end (2:32) repeats the sum total of 603,550 again specifying that the total did not include the tribe of Layvie. But that’s not all…
Starting with the third chapter, (3:1) Hashem commanded the counting of the tribe of Layvie, first Moshe and then Aharon and his sons. Then, the Torah again recorded the deaths of Nadav and Avihu (eldest sons of Aharon) declaring Elazar and Isamar as Aharon’s surviving sons. The Torah then pauses in the census taking of the tribe of Layvie to appoint Layvie as administrators of the Mishkan under the direction of Aharon and his sons. Returning to the census of Layvie each of the three Levite families, Gershon, Kehas, and Merari are counted. In each instance, the family is counted and totaled, their placement within the camp organization noted, and the family’s specific assignment regarding the Mishkan stated. The Torah then states (3:39) the sum total of the Leviyim was 22,000. But that’s not all…
Following the census of Layvie, Hashem commanded the counting of all first- born males over the age of 30 days who would have administered the workings of the Mishkan if not for the sin of the Golden Calf. Moshe did so and the total of first-born in the entire nation was 22,273 (3:43). The 22,000 Leviyim were officially exchanged for the 22,273 first-born. The extra 273 first-born were required to undergo a “pidyon – redemption” with Aharon whereby their otherwise sanctified designation (if not for the Golden Calf) was removed and transferred to the tribe of Layvie. But that’s not all…
Concluding Parshas Bamidbar and extending into next week’s Parshas Noso, the Torah addressed each of the three families of Layvie, repeating in each instance that their census was from 30 days to 50 years old and elaborating on the exact service each family was to perform in the “moving” of the Mishkan.
Why all the detailed counting and repetition?
I would like to suggest that in keeping with the theme of Sefer Vayikra (Leviticus) and the final laws of last week’s Parsha, the beginning of Bamidbar is all about establishing that the true worth of a person is determined solely by their willful service to Hashem. In the concluding verses of Sefer Vayikra that we read last week (27:1-27) the Torah detailed the exact value of a person.
A male adult between the ages of twenty and sixty is valued at fifty silver shekels and a female of the same age is valued at 30. A male between the ages of five and twenty is valued at twenty shekalim and a female of the same age is valued at ten. A male between the ages of one month and five years is valued at five shekalim and a female of the same age is valued at three. A male over the age of sixty is valued at fifteen shekalim and a female of the same age is valued at ten.
What are the circumstances where these monetary values are applied and why did Sefer Vayikra end with this topic?
As we have learned many times before, Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch defined Sefer Vayikra as a presentation of the ideal that G-d intended for His people. Sefer Bereshis established that separation (speciation) is natural and essential for creation and that the family of Avraham was chosen from the rest of humanity to be apart and different.
Sefer Shemos declared that the reason why the Jews were chosen was to receive the Torah and live by its ideals and values. In doing so they would fulfill the mandate to be “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”
Sefer Vayikra is a detailed description of what a chosen life style of kingship and sanctity should look like. It describes the goal toward which we should aspire as a priestly and sanctified nation. Succinctly put, the essence of Vayikra is how a person and a nation should serve G-d. Couched in terms of the Korbanos, (sacrifices) framed within the confines of the Mishkan, and performed by the family of Aharon Hakohain, Sefer Vayikra describes a world of purpose and devotion in the service of G-d.
At the center of that pictured lifestyle were the lives and deaths of Nadav and Avihu. As we explained, their deaths revealed that the essence of service is devotion circumscribed and directed by discipline. There is no room for innovation when serving G-d. G-d’s law can be likened to a perfect structure whose balance demands the faultless confluence of the materials used, the foundation upon which it stands, and exacting conditions of temperature, wind, and humidity. If even one element is out of sync the structure will crumble. So too, the law of G-d in relation to the laws of nature and the structure of the universe. G-d’s universe is a perfectly synchronized and balanced system whose intended functioning requires perfect adherence to the letter and spirit of G-d’s intentions.
That is why innovation of any kind, whether to add or to delete, can have disastrous results. Rather than innovation leading to the evolution of an ever strengthening truth, the opposite occurs. It momentarily appears to be stronger and better, more applicable and accessible, when in truth all we see is the external structure and have no awareness of the weakening foundation and crumbling internal structure of the law, tradition, and the nation. Instead of continuity there is defection and instead of truth there is rationalization.
The bottom line is that it is G-d and only G-d Who determines true value and purpose. That is why the final laws of Vayikra present a scale of imposed monetary values regarding the individual. Practically speaking, if a person promises to give his worth, or someone else’s worth as a donation to the Bais Hamikdash, it is not left up to the individual or the court to decide the “worth” of another human. Instead, G-d gave a set scale of values as the means for that individual to redeem his or her monetary pledge to the Bais Hamikdash. It proclaims loud and clear that only G-d can set the “price” of a human. Therefore, it is incumbent upon us to view each other as equally priceless. There can be no other moral or practical conclusion except where otherwise designated by G-d Himself.
However, the end of Vayikra still begs clarification. Why would Hashem make the distinctions that He does between age and gender? Why should it appear as if women are “worth less” than men? Why should the post-sixty be “less valuable” than the pre-sixty?
The answer must be that to conclude Divine chauvinism and bias is heresy, illogical, and foolish. Instead, G-d chose a limited area of His law to make a point. It is proper for humans to view each other as equal although separate. In fact, it is incumbent upon each of us to consider each other as equally valuable and necessary within the delicately balanced complexity of G-d’s universe. As such we should be determined to provide for each other’s well being and opportunities. We should desire excellence for each other in everything that we are and everything that we do. Underscoring that absolute value of separate but equal are the concluding laws of Vayikra that arbitrarily assign lesser values to one half of humanity over the other. It defies rational and confronts conventional morality; nevertheless, the Torah’s shopping list of monetary values stands as a challenge to our assumption of purpose and value. We do not determine truth, purpose and value – G-d does.
In G-d’s eyes men and women, old and young, Jewish and non-Jewish, are all equal so long as they do as He commands. The absolute is not what we do but why we do it. What we should do is what He commands us to do. What we do is not optional. The only area truly within the framework of our freewill is why we do what we do. If we do it because that is what G-d wants us to do then we are each as equal, as valuable, as righteous, and as worthy as each other. However, if we do what we do because we want to do it. If we do what we do because we decided that it is the right thing to do. If we do what we do because it fits into the immediacy of our life’s circumstances. If we do what we do because of the above reasons rather than doing it because we are commanded by G-d to do so, we suffer the real danger of assigning values to each other that make “me” more valuable and “you” less valuable.
In Sefer Bamidbar, the Torah presents us with the practical application of Vayikra’s ideals. How well did the nation do in subjecting themselves to the absolutes of G-d’s law? How successful were they in returning to the absolute equality of the nation standing at the foot of Mt. Sinai “as one individual with one heart?” This week’s census and its continuation into Parshas Noso begin to answer that question. Next week I will apply the principle of ‘It’s why you do it not what you do,” to the detailed census that begins Sefer Bamidbar.