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D'var Torah: BaMidbar

We’ve just gotten the preliminary figures from our own decennial census, so perhaps this year we can relate better than most to the story that opens BaMidbar.

Note that in verse 1:2, Moses and Aaron are directed to count the males of each tribe, from age twenty upwards, “By number of the names, every male according to their head count.” Recall that in Exodus 30:12, it is forbidden to conduct a literal head count. (“When you take a census of the Children of Israel according to their numbers, every man shall give HaShem an atonement for his soul when counting them, so that there will not be a plague among them when counting them.”)

King David erred in this regard, thinking that this only applied to the time of Moses (Berachot 62b), so he ordered a regular head count. As a result the nation was stricken with a plague: 2 Samuel 24:1-15, for which David repented; 1 Chronicles 21:8 when he realized his error. Ramban comments that another interpretation is that David did use coins or another method of avoiding a direct head count, but was punished because there was no compelling reason to conduct any count irrespective of the method.

Why is it so fraught with peril for Jews to count Jews, such that a census is only to be undertaken for compelling reasons, and even then only by an indirect method? I’ll suggest an answer: G-d promises Abraham that his descendants will be as “...the dust of the earth, so that if one can count the dust of the earth, then your offspring too can be counted” (Gen. 13:16). Later G-d talks to Abraham in a vision, saying, “Gaze now, toward the Heavens, and count the stars if you are able to count them!” And G-d said to him, “So shall your offspring be!” (Gen. 15:5).

If humans, without divine instruction, dare to conduct a census of the Jews, it can be construed as doubting G-d’s Word to Abraham. Who would have the temerity to audit G-d, to evaluate whether G-d has kept His promise?

And why the indirect counting method? That’s a tougher question to answer, but consistently with my first solution, I’ll suggest that when, with Divine permission, a census is undertaken, doing so indirectly puts a layer of deniability between us and doubting G-d’s fulfillment of His promise to Abraham. This may sound lawyerly, but I put it to you that lawyerliness is very much in the spirit of Torah—remember when the Frisco Kid, played by Gene Wilder, wants to get on his horse to escape the posse, but it’s Shabbat and the sun is still well above the horizon. So the Kid ducks until from his perspective the sun disappears behind a hill, at which point he says, “Close enough!” mounts and rides like the wind in the opposite direction.

The nice part about connecting the half-shekel contribution with the census is the linkage between charitable giving and long life. Every year on the High Holidays we recite a passage reflecting that deeds of loving-kindness can annul the severity of G-d’s Judgment (u’tfilah, u’tzedakah, u’tshuva, et roah hagazerah). So, even when there is no census, we have powerful incentive to give to charity, and we should have an attitude that charitable giving, because it helps us prolong our lives or avoid misfortune, is not a burden, but a blessing.

—Alan Falk
June 2002

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