By Rabbi Avraham
Fischer. A publication of the Orthodox Union in cooperation with the Seymour
J. Abrams Orthodox Union Jerusalem World Center
2 Sivan 5764 - May 21, 2004
As the book of Bamidbar opens, the Children of Israel are
commanded to conduct a census:
And Hashem spoke to Moshe in the wilderness of Sinai, in the Tent of Meeting,
on the first of the second month, in the second year of their exodus from the
land of Egypt, saying: “Take a census of all the congregation of the Children
of Israel by their families, by their fathers’ houses, according to the number
of their names, every male, by their head count. From the age of twenty years
and upward, all those that go out in the army in Israel, shall you and Aharon
count them by their armies (L’TZIVOTAM)” (Bamidbar 1:1-3).
This is not the first time a census has been mentioned. When Hashem taught the
detailed instructions for the Mishkan, the materials included a mandatory
half-shekel coin which could be used to determine the number of the
And Hashem spoke to Moshe, saying: “When you take a census of the Children of
Israel by their numberings, each man shall give a ransom for his soul to
Hashem in numbering them, so that there not be a plague among them in
numbering them” (Shemot 30:11-12).
According to Chizkuni (R. Chizkiya ben Manoach, mid 13th Century), the census
in the beginning of Bamidbar is the first time the commandment in Shemot was
fulfilled. Rashi, on the other hand, holds that the first census was taken at
the time of the building of the Mishkan. The count “on the first of the second
month, in the second year of their exodus from the land of Egypt” is the
second time a census was taken.
What is the purpose of this census?
In verses 5-15, Hashem tells Moshe to obtain the assistance of the tribal
heads (nesiim) for the census, and they are listed in proper order. As Ibn
Ezra points out, first come the sons of Leah, Yaakov’s first wife, then the
sons of Rachel, placing Ephraim before Menashe in accordance with Yaakov’s
blessing (Bereishit 48:20), and then the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, starting
with the oldest Dan. (Levi is always treated separately.)
In verses 20-43, however, where the tallies of all the tribes are given, the
tribes are listed in the order of their encampment, as will be explained in
chapter 2. This change necessitates placing Gad after Reuven and Shimon. In
other words, the census as reported anticipates the encampment, even before
Hashem commands it.
When the camp is arranged, with three tribes on each side, flags play a
And Hashem spoke to Moshe and to Aharon, saying, “Everyone by his flag (DIGLO),
with signs (B’OTOT) according to the house of their fathers shall the Children
of Israel encamp. At a distance, around the Tent of Meeting shall they encamp”
R. Yaakov Kamenetsky (1896-1981, “Emet L’Yaakov”) points out that the purpose
of these flags and the structure of the camp cannot be to impart independence
or a military configuration to the Children of Israel. They possessed these
from the moment of the Exodus:
• And it was on that selfsame day that Hashem took the Children of Israel out
of the land of Egypt by their armies (AL TZIVOTAM) (Shemot 12:51).
• …and armed did the Children of Israel ascend from the land of Egypt
Furthermore (if we may be permitted to add to R. Kamenetsky’s question), this
configuration is part of the people’s legacy. As Rashi says, the twelve sons
of Yaakov were so positioned when they carried his body to Canaan:
“With signs (B’OTOT) according to the house of their fathers — by the sign
that their father Yaakov transmitted to them when they bore him from Egypt, as
it is said, “And his sons did so for him, as he charged them” (Bereishit
50:12). Yehudah, Yissachar, and Zevulun were to bear him from the east, and
Reuven, Shimon, and Gad from the south, etc.” (Bamidbar 2:2).
The encampment remained in the nation’s collective memory, ready to be
actualized immediately upon their liberation. As R. Kamenetsky declares:
“Behold, they did not leave like slaves who flee from their masters, but as a
free nation. So why did they wait a full year to organize the flags? I
However, he says, each flag (DEGEL) and sign (OT) connotes a quality distinct
to each tribe (see Ibn Ezra). In addition, each tribe is an army (TZAVA) unto
itself. The existence of twelve different tribes, with their respective tribal
symbols, could lead to disharmony (peirud levavot, “division of hearts”)
within the people.
Once the Mishkan was erected and dedicated, however, the twelve tribes were
unified by it. Only with the Mishkan at the geometrical and ideological center
could the dozen disparate tribes become a united entity. Only with the Mishkan
as a central purpose can the tribes’ dissimilar characteristics cooperate.
This idea is developed by the Maharal (R. Yehudah Loew ben Betzalel, c.
1525-1609; Baer Hagolah 6:8; Gevurot Hashem 13; Chiddushei Aggadot Yevamot
16b, Sanhedrin 21a; see also Sefer HaYetzira 5:2.). The number twelve
signifies the limits of the three-dimensional world, like the twelve edges of
a cube. Each of these has a distinct function and connection to Hashem. Even
among the nations, there are twelve divisions (see Devarim 32:8): Avraham’s
brother Nachor had 12 children (Bereshit 22:20-24), as did Canaan (10:15-19)
and Yishmael (17:20, 25:16). However, they lack a unifying force.
The tribes of Israel are like the branches of a tree, subdividing from their
common root. To combine their varied strengths, they must remain focused on
Yaakov and the Torah. Thus the tribes encamp around the Mishkan, just as the
twelve brothers encircled Yaakov when they took his body back home.
Like the instruments in an orchestra, diversity within the Jewish People can
produce either cacophony or symphony. As Shavuot, the Season of the Giving of
Our Torah approaches, we need to remember the Torah’s harmonizing power. When
the Torah is our common mission, our music can fill the universe.
Torah K'Torat Eretz Yisrael!"- Torah from Aloh Na'aleh*
The Book of Bamidbar begins with God's instructions to Moshe to count the
Jewish people. Rashi notes that this is the third counting of Bnai Yisrael
since Yitziat Mitzrayim. The first was at the time of the Exodus itself (Shmot
12:37). The second was after the sin of the golden calf (Shmot 30:12,
Rashi 30:16) to ascertain the number of survivors. The census in Bamidbar
is in anticipation of HaShem’s resting His Shechina in the camp of Israel
after the completion of the Mishkan. Rashi comments that it is out of
God’s love for Israel that He counts them so frequently.
The second counting is understandable. After those who had worshipped the
golden calf were put to death, God counted the survivors as a
demonstration of His continued love for the people. However, taking us out
of Egypt and resting His Shekhina on Israel were themselves expressions of
God's love. Why then did God count Bnai Yisrael on these occasions?
Rashi’s derivation alludes to an important lesson. The Torah is teaching
us that nothing should be taken for granted. Even when a parent
demonstrates his love for his child with a hug and a kiss, s/he still
verbalizes the words "I love you." So too our Father in Heaven. Even
though taking Bnai Yisrael out of Egypt and resting His Shechina among
them were clear demonstrations of God’s love for Israel, He still
demonstrated His love by counting the people.
Certainly, Eretz Yisrael too must never be taken for granted. From the
time of our wandering in the desert, Jewish history is full of suffering
resulting from Bnai Yisrael's failure to appreciate our Land. Taking
something for granted jeopardizes its continuity. The antidote to Israel's
sorrows which originated with the sin of the spies is to achieve a true
understanding and appreciation of the connection between the People of
Israel and its Land.
Har Nof, Jerusalem
*D’var Torah from Aloh Na'aleh:
an initiative of former North American Rabbis and laymen who successfully
made Aliyah, aimed at highlighting the centrality of Israel and promoting
Aliyah. They send emissaries – Rabbis, academicians, and others – on
speaking-tours throughout the U.S. and Canada.
Rabbi Yerachmiel Roness , Exec. Dir., Aloh Naaleh,
At the OU Center, 22 Keren HaYesod
Tel.(02) 566-7787 ex. 254