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
Rabbi Berel Wein- Jewish historian, author and international lecturer offers a complete selection of CDs, audio tapes, video tapes, DVDs, and books on Jewish history at www.rabbiwein.com