by R. Gidon Rothstein
Counting People or Coins
In English, Bamidbar is known as Numbers, partially because it opens (and closes, in Parshat Pinchas) with enumerations of the Jewish people. The second and third verses of the book use several terms for counting the people, Ramban focuses on the root pkd, as in tifkedu otam, commonly and reasonably translated as “count them.”
In Bereshit, the Torah uses the same root regarding Sarah getting pregnant at age eighty-nine, and there it cannot mean count. Rather, pkd means memory and attention, Ramban says, sometimes for counting, sometimes for helping a barren woman get pregnant. Here, it also implies Moshe and Aharon should count the Jews in such a way as to cause them to remember or pay attention to each Jew, such as each Jew giving a half shekel. [There’s more to be said about the different levels of attention we give to items we count, but Ramban moves away from this line of thinking].
Ramban assumes David took his census (II Shemuel 24;9) in the same way. David was later punished for his count, leading many to claim he had Yoav count heads directly rather than through a donated item. Ramban disagrees, unwilling to view David as having ignored Shemot 30;12, which warns the Jewish people to give akofer, a representative and/or atoning item, to avoid plague during a census. Even had David in fact forgotten or refused to adhere to the rule, why wouldn’t Yoav? I Divrei Hayamim (21;3) records his discomfort with this census; were the lack of a kofer the issue, Yoav could have collected one from the people, without telling David and without it constituting a violation of his order (David did not specifically say do not accept half shekels from the people while counting them).
Needed or Not
Ramban proposes a different problem, the census was unnecessary. They were not going to war, and had no need to know how many people the Jews constituted, other than to gladden David’s heart with the size of the nation over which he ruled. As Yoav says in II Shemuel 24;3, let Hashem bless the people a hundred times, but why count them?
Ramban supported his view with Bamidbar Rabbah 2;17, where R. Elazar in the name of R. Yose b. Zimra notes that any needed census did not cause plague (such as those in the Torah), while any unneeded one did (such as David’s). Why a census is taken matters.
I’ve pointed it out before, but I think it bears repeating. For all his independence and creativity, his willingness to stand apart from Rashi on how to read the Torah, for all the strands in Midrash Rabbah which make it possible to find almost anything there, Ramban does strive mightily for support in earlier texts for the ideas he broaches.
The Virtues of Inexactness
His other theory (one he does not source to an earlier Midrash) says David decided to count the people starting with young men of age thirteen, halachic adulthood, where the Torah speaks of twenty, the age of military and other public service. In Ramban’s view, the Torah chose twenty to teach us we should not attempt to count the entire Jewish people (or even all the men).
Hashem promised Avraham, Bereshit 15;5, to multiply us like the stars of the sky. For Ramban, Hashem meant the people will be essentially uncountable, regardless of how many Jews there actually will be. Trying to put a number on the Jewish people implicitly gives the lie to the promise, and is therefore not allowed.
Not explicit in the Torah, there was room for David to fail to notice Hashem’s intent. But Yoav had got it, which is why he resisted and, in Ramban’s view, whyDivrei HaYamim refers to those whom he counted as sholef cherev, able to wield a sword. Yoav chose not to count the ill or weak, to avoid violating the Torah without directly disobeying the king. [Two points: First, this seems to me to capture an element of the David/Yoav relationship in general, where Yoav often does what he wants without crossing into flagrant rebellion. At the same time, he reminds us of the room underlings had to resist or avoid wrongful commands. We often excuse people who feel they had to follow orders, unless they’re Nazis we hate for other reasons. Yoav offers a good counterexample, a reminder of our personal responsibility to act correctly.
Second, Ramban’s idea about not knowing the exact number of Jews confronts us with an idea we might forget was one option within traditional thought. In his view, part of what Hashem guaranteed his descendants was their uncountability, their constituting a blessing never fully quantified. Ramban does not lay out the value in that, but I think there’s a whole worldview here—one that runs counter to some contemporary sensibilities—about when it’s good to know something fully and exactly.
For the Jewish people’s numbers, we prefer a bit of inexactness. Yoav sought to introduce that, but it seems insufficient, since David got punished anyway.
Placement of the Camps
After counting the Jews, the Torah tells them to camp in family clans and tribes around the Mishkan. The camp of Yehudah (joined by Yissachar and Zevulun) was to the east, Reuven (with Shimon and Gad) to the south, Efrayim (Menashe and Binyamin) to the west, and Dan (Asher and Naftali) the north.
Yehudah was placed where they could travel first, since their tribe will eventually rule over the Jewish people. Long before David came along (in the book ofShofetim 1 and 20), Hashem told the people Yehudah should lead the nation into war. Reuven was placed next, to respect his status as first-born. With two Leah-descended tribes heading the first two camps, the descendants of Rachel got one camp to the west, and the maidservants one camp, to the north.
Bamidbar Rabbah 2;9 offers a different model (another example of what I pointed out above, Ramban finds his ideas in earlier sources, not makes them up—or a different version he adds to, adapts, or changes). It relates where Hashem put the tribes to the atmospheric effect associated with each direction. Light comes from the east (where the sun rises), fitting for the future kings (who bring political light to the world), and their companions, the tribes of Yissachar (bearers of the light of Torah), and Zevulun (financial light).
The south brings beneficial rain and dew, which Reuven earned through his penitence (for his actions with Bilhah). Gad’s physical prowess makes him a good partner to surround Shim’on, a tribe which needs atonement (for its role in killing the city of Shechem and selling Yosef). Together, they all go second, because repentance is second to Torah.
The west brings snow, hail, cold, and warm, which the Midrash links to Efrayim, Menasheh and Binyamin. The Divine Presence will be in Binyamin’s region (in the Temple), and this camp is an adjunct to the other two since it takes heroism and effort to accomplish much in Torah and the self-conquest necessary to repent.
[He’s not so clear on these points. I think he means the somewhat harsher weather from the west produces results we value, if we fight our way through it. So, too, we only achieve Torah and repentance overcoming challenges; those who do overcome those merit a closer relationship with Hashem. Since Binyamin became blessed with Hashem’s Presence in the Temple in his region, it made sense that the group that travelled with Binyamin in the desert be placed in a weather pattern which would symbolize their experience].
I find most interesting of the four the way this Midrash explains Dan’s placement in the north, the direction this Midrash sees as the source of darkness. When Yarov’am started the Kingdom of Israel, he set up two golden calves [an astounding choice, as if the Jewish people had not already had enough trouble from golden calves], one of them in Dan. Since Dan would be the source of the darkness of worship of powers other than Hashem, he was placed in the dark north.
Asher and Naftali, his fellows, were two tribes of great blessing still left for last because of the alien worship with which they would be involved.
[Ramban does not delve into this Midrash further, but I am surprised it chose a negative attribute of Dan’s to see as the reason for their placement. The belief in freewill should have meant they would not be “punished” in the desert because of what their descendants might or would likely do. To answer this would take us too far afield, but I did want to note it].
Ramban mentions another interpretation in the Midrash, which saw the tribes as reflecting four camps of angels, but does not give us the details. The details matter less than their agreement the tribes were arranged deliberately, based on their mothers or a more metaphysical aspect of their national function (or all of them combined).
When Gd’s people moved through the desert on their slow but inexorable march to the Land promised their forefathers, it was no random agglomeration, it was a march to behold and to understand, by the people and maybe by the world.
Why So Few Levi’im?
Ramban was not the first to note the low numbers of Levi’im counted in chapter three—they are counted from aged one month instead of twenty years, yet there are only eight thousand of them when the smallest of the other tribes had over thirty thousand.
Tanchuma Va-Era 6 had said the Levi’im were never enslaved in Egypt, which Ramban thinks would explain their paucity of population (in fact, he thinks the number of Levi’im here ratifies Tanchuma’s view). Since the Egyptians said they instituted and embittered the Jews’ slavery to rein in the burgeoning Jewish population, tradition viewed Hashem as responding by producing the opposite result (Ramban refers here to the idea in many places, such as Tanchuma Shemot 8, which contrasts Par’oh’s words in Shemot 1;10 “pen yirbeh, lest they multiply,” with the words two verse later, as much as they mistreated the Jews, “ken yirbeh, so did they multiply.” Literally the verse means that the suffering corresponded to how much they multiplied; the Midrash reads that as Hashem’s deliberate response to the attempt to suppress the people).
Ramban here says the growth might only have happened for those who suffered the oppression. The Levi’im did not bear that burden, so they grew at a natural rate [there’s an implicit response here to the modern claim denying the possibility of the Jewish population growth presented in the Torah, from seventy men when Ya’akov came to Egypt, to 600,000 only 210 years later].
For Ramban, supernatural population growth came only because of Egyptian wrongdoing. Those who did not bear the brunt of the wrongdoing also did not benefit from explosive growth.
Parshat Bamidbar, as our samples of Ramban show it, concerns itself with population. How and why to count, where to put people when setting up a national camp, and how Jews do or do not grow faster than naturally possible.