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Why can we not count Jews?

Written by d fine

Parshas Bamidbar; Out for the Count :

This week we are going to ask a question which we have asked several times before with regards to previous parshiyos (e.g Emor, Vayikra). A sedra is named after its first significant word. Thus, the sedra Korach is not entitled by its first word ‘vayikach,’ nor is parshas Ki Sisa entitled ‘vayedaber,’ because though these words are the first words in their sedras, they are relatively common and are thus not deemed significant enough to head a sedra. However, a cursory glance at the first pasuk in parshas Bamidbar will reveal the fact that the word ‘bamidbar’ does not seem to be particularly significant. Indeed, if my memory serves me correctly (or, more accurately, if my Bar Ilan CD is telling the truth), the word ‘bamidbar’ appears 62 times in the Torah. In fact, the word ‘midbar’ appears 107 times in the Torah, whilst the word ‘vayikach’ (the first word of parshas Korach, which was deemed ‘too common’ to be a title of a sedra) appears only 88 times. If so, what is so significant about the word ‘bamidbar’ that it gets to entitle a sedra; and a chumash too?

Being Jewish, we shall answer our question with another question. We know that every word in the Torah is precious, and is there for a reason; no word is superfluous. If so, why are we being told at the start of the sedra that Bnei Yisrael were in the desert; we know this already? The answer to this question will bring out the significance of the Torah telling us that Bnei Yisrael were in the desert, and so will automatically answer our initial question regarding the significance of the word ‘bamidbar.’
Perhaps one can suggest that the word ‘bamidbar’ is not there to tell us that Bnei Yisrael were in the desert; we know that already. Rather, it is there to bring out a contrast. The contrast is that Bnei Yisrael are in a desert; a place which is wild, and has no order per se. Yet the sedra goes on to describe the perfect and precise encampments of the Bnei Yisrael and how each tribe had their position within the general formation. The fact that the Torah emphasises that Bnei Yisrael are in the desert brings out this contrast between the desert’s natural ‘disorder’ and the pristine order of the Bnei Yisrael. Indeed, this is a microcosm of our goal in the world in general; to attest to the fact that there is a unified order to the disparate parts of world. We are the witnesses to the fact that everything in the world has One Source, and so everything is connected. This is the message of the word ‘bamidbar,’ and is why it gets to entitle the sedra and Chumash.

This mission of ours reflected by the fact that in the Shema, the letter Ayin of the word Shema and the Dalet of Echad are enlarged; these spell eid (‘a witness’), to teach us that our goal is to bear witness to HaShem’s Oneness. Furthermore, one can see this idea in Yosef’s interpretation of Pharaoh’s dreams. Pharaoh has two dreams (the cows and the sheaves), and cannot find anyone who provides the correct interpretation. Finally, Yosef is summoned from prison and interprets the dreams correctly. But what was his big chiddush (innovation) that the other dream-readers didn’t manage to get to? That both dreams were telling Pharaoh the same message; ‘it was one dream’ (41;25 & 26). The Egyptian dream-interpreters did not think that the two dreams might be connected. It took a Jew, whose whole essence is to be a living testimony to the fact that all the disparate parts of the world are connected through its One Source, Hashem, to come up with the idea that the two dreams were conveying one unified message.
It is through fulfilling this role and attesting to the fact that the world’s ‘natural order’ is run by HaShem that we show our ability to rise above the natural order. Thus, the Sfas Emes notes the irony in the name ‘seder night’ (meaning ‘night of order’) being the night we recall the supernatural miracles that were performed on our behalf. Our natural order, he remarked, is the supernatural order. [Look at our history to see how true this is; apart from our miraculous survival despite incessant persecution, we have returned to our homeland from exile a record three times, and have had a huge impact on world civilisation which is out of proportion to our small population numbers]. Similarly, the word Yetzias mitzrayim (the Exodus) can be read as yetzias meitzarim (‘going out of borders’), for it was a time when we broke through natural limits through HaShem’s miracles.

It is this concept of the Bnei Yisrael’s character to rise above the natural order that is present in another part of our sedra too.
The beginning of our sedra speaks about the counting of the Bnei Yisrael. We are not allowed to count Jews directly (‘one, two, three, four…’). Instead, we use some other way of counting (‘hoshiya es amecha…’) or count via objects; for example, by counting the half-shekel donations given to the Mishkan. From where do we learn that we cannot directly count Jews? The gemarra[1] tells us that it is learnt from a pasuk in Hoshea,[2] which reads ‘the [population] number of the Bnei Yisrael will be like the sand on the seashore, which cannot be measured not counted.’ How exactly is the gemarra using this pasuk as a source for the prohibition to count Jews; the pasuk is a forecast of the Bnei Yisrael’s numerous population numbers – the pasuk does not seem to say explicitly that it is forbidden to count Jews; just that it is impossible to count Jews? The answer is that the theme behind not counting Jews is that the Jewish People are a supernatural people, and have no limits as to what they can achieve. Putting a number on someone/something is the ultimate form of limiting them; one says that this person/object is limited to such a number or measurement and cannot currently stretch to more than this figure. But the Jewish People are naturally supernatural, and expand beyond any limits, and so counting us (putting a number on us directly) would be defying our entire existence as a supernatural people. Therefore, the gemarra is learning from the pasuk in Hoshea that since we are a people without limitations, and this is reflected by the fact that our population numbers will increase exponentially, it is forbidden to count us, because counting us denies this supernatural character in attempting to bring us down to the finite expression of numbers and figures.

In fact, this is what Hamman tried to do to us in the Purim story. This is what was ‘achieved’ in giving a sum of money to Achashveirosh in exchange for the ‘privilege’ of exterminating the Jewish People. Hamman was trying to declare the Jewish People a ‘saleable item’ which could be expressed in terms of a finite monetary value; thus denying their supernatural limitless nature which cannot be confined to any specific sum of money. In fact, Hamman’s wife tries to convince her husband that this plan will not work. When Hamman returns home despondent at the fact that he has had to lead Mordechai through the city on horseback, Mrs. Hamman tells her husband that ‘if Mordechai is a Jew…you will not be able to conquer him.’[3] And as Rashi reveals,[4] the longer version of what she said was ‘this nation are compared to starts and dust. When they descend they become as low as the dust, but when they are on the ascendancy they rise up to the Heavens and to the stars.’ What Mrs. Hamman was telling her husband was that it is impossible to confine the Jewish People to a natural plain, because they are a supernatural people.
Finally, this explanation of counting Bnei Yisrael explains the word ‘se’uh’ used when the Torah speaks about the taking of the census.[5] This word se’uh means ‘to raise up,’ and as the Kli Yakar notes,[6] it is referring to the fact that the Bnei Yisrael have been elevated above the other nations of the world in terms of their relationship with HaShem. This matches the point that the fact that we are to be counted indirectly is demonstrative of our supernatural nature on the whole.

Have a great Shabbos,

[1] Gemarra Yoma 22b
[2] Hoshea 2:1
[3] Megillas Esther 6:13
[4] Rashi Megillas Esther 6:13
[5] Bamidbar 1:2
[6] Kli Yakar Bamidbar 1:2. He says that the word se’uh is telling us that Bnei Yisrael have a special hashgacha pratis for each one of us, and not just a hashgacha klalis for the nation as a whole.

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