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You Really Do Count!

May 23, 2020

I finally completed the 2020 US census. I had already recycled multiple postcards requesting my participation, but when the most recent one said, “Respond now to prevent an interviewer visit to collect your response,” I decided that the easier route would be to just answer the questionnaire online. Sadly, we haven’t had a visitor in our home in three months; I didn’t really want a government questioner to be the first.

Then I realized that maybe my timing was perfect. I filled out my family’s information for the census, right before opening the parsha to read about… a census! Was the census that is recorded at the beginning of Parshat Bamidbar similar to the one in which I just participated? In truth, I think that they are very different, both in how they were conducted, and more importantly, in their purpose.

The United States Constitution (Article I, Section 2) says:

Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers… The actual Enumeration shall be made within three Years after the first Meeting of the Congress of the United States, and within every subsequent Term of ten Years, in such Manner as they shall by Law direct.

The primary objective of the US census is to determine statistics for the purpose of number of representatives and taxes. It also helps in decision making and funding for public schools, businesses, hospitals, and more.

But the census in our parsha had a different motivation. In fact, Rashi (Bamidbar 1:1) famously notes that we have already been counted twice since leaving Egypt, and we’re only in the second year! Why did we need to be counted again? Perhaps we can learn about the purpose of this census from the way in which it was conducted.

While the US census was implemented through, as mentioned above, mailing postcards, sending emails, and threatening to send interviewers (would he really have come?), the parsha’s census was done in a different way. Hashem instructs Moshe, “מבן עשרים שנה ומעלה כל יצא צבא בישראל תפקדו אתם לצבאתם אתה ואהרן ואתכם יהיו איש איש למטה איש לראש אבתיו הוא, from twenty years of age and up- everyone who goes out to the legion of Israel- you shall count them according to their legions, you and Aharon. And with you shall be one man from each tribe, a man who is a leader of his father’s household (Bamidbar 1:3-4).” It’s clear that this census is not to be conducted by government agents, clerks, or volunteers. Rather, Bnai Yisrael were counted by Moshe, Aharon, and the heads of the tribes. This is clarified further, when at the end of the census, the Torah writes, “אלה הפקדים אשר פקד משה ואהרן ונשיאי ישראל שנים עשר איש, these are the countings that Moshe, Aharon, and the leaders of Israel counted- twelve men (Bamidbar 1:44).” Once again, the Torah emphasizes that the counting was done by only fourteen people and no more: Moshe, Aharon, and twelve other prominent leaders. Why was it so important that specifically these great leaders be the ones conducting the census?

There are two different verbs that Hashem uses when instructing Moshe to count the people. First, in Bamidbar 1:2, He says, “שאו,” and after, in Baimdbar 1:3, He says, “תפקדו.” Both are generally translated as “count,” so why is there a need for both of them? Ramban (on Bamidbar 1:3) explains that the word שאו doesn’t just mean to count, but it’s more than that. He references the story of Yosef in prison, where he interprets the dreams of the butler and the baker. The butler was more fortunate, and Yosef tells him, “ישא פרעה את ראשך והשיבך על כנך, Pharaoh will lift your head and restore you to your post (Bereishit 40:13).” The word ישא means to lift, as in to raise some to a great position, to a place of honor and value. The butler was going to be “lifted,” and returned to his esteemed position in the royal palace. That, says the Ramban, is what Hashem is instructing Moshe. “שאו,” lift them up! Show each person how great he is! Remind each Jew that he too has an esteemed position in the proverbial royal palace!

That’s why it was so critical that Moshe, Aharon, and only a small group of select leaders could be the ones conducting the census. When you get a postcard in the mail, the message it sends is that you are a statistic, worthy of a small paper with a photocopied standard message. (To be clear, I recommend everyone participate in the census, as these statistics are important. I have no qualms with the way it is implemented. I am merely using it as a foil, to contrast it with the purpose of our parsha’s census). But when a great and honored leader shows up at your door to make sure that you and your family are included in the count, it’s a great reminder of just how important you are. Imagine how you would feel if Moshe Rabbeinu knocked on your door to make sure that you were a part of the census!

And that, ultimately, was the purpose of this census. To send a clear message to every single Jew: you are not merely a statistic or a number, but someone who is valued, precious, and essential. The Mishna in Sanhedrin 4:5 states:

לְפִיכָךְ נִבְרָא אָדָם יְחִידִי, לְלַמֶּדְךָ, שֶׁכָּל הַמְאַבֵּד נֶפֶשׁ אַחַת מִיִּשְׂרָאֵל, מַעֲלֶה עָלָיו הַכָּתוּב כְּאִלּוּ אִבֵּד עוֹלָם מָלֵא. וְכָל הַמְקַיֵּם נֶפֶשׁ אַחַת מִיִּשְׂרָאֵל, מַעֲלֶה עָלָיו הַכָּתוּב כְּאִלּוּ קִיֵּם עוֹלָם מָלֵא... לפיכך כל אחד ואחד חיב לומר בשבילי נברא העולם.

Therefore, man was created alone, to teach that one who destroys the life of one Jew, the Torah considers it as if he destroyed an entire world. And one who gives life to a single Jew, the Torah considers it as if he gave life to an entire world… Therefore, every person is obligated to say “for me the world was created.”

Every Jew is a whole world! That means, tragically, that every person we have lost during this terrible pandemic is an entire world destroyed. And we should take some time to contemplate that and mourn how many worlds we’ve lost. And it also means that every one of us is a world that is blessed with limitless potential. If Moshe Rabbeinu was alive, he would knock on your door to remind you that! As we read the numbers of Parshat Bamidbar, the statistics from each tribe and household, we remember that each Jew was and is so much more than just a number. שאו, lift your head! You are an entire world, and have the power to affect the entire world!

Have a great Shabbos!

Rabbi Fox

Sun, June 16 2024 10 Sivan 5784