Halakhic Positions of Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik
by R. Aharon Ziegler
In the secular world, the underlying theme of “taking a census” is that the individual, the YACHID, means nothing; he is but a number. Only the masses are important; only the total nation collectively is meaningful. Only statistical facts are to be gleaned from a census- the average income, output, the health situation, etc. The individual does not count. Interesting is that in our Torah, the Torah has a unique expression when calling for a census, namely, “LIFT THE HEADS OF ALL BNEI YISRAEL” (Bamidbar 1:2). Why the strange expression of LIFTING THE HEADS when it simply means to count the people?
We find a parallel theme in Parshat Vayeishev (Bereishit 40:19). When Yosef was asked by Pharaoh’s jailed butler and baker to interpret their dreams, he said to both “In three days Pharaoh will lift your head”. Although their fates would be completely dissimilar, the butler would be reinstated, and the baker would be hanged. Yet Yosef began with “lift your head” for both?
Rav Soloveitchik suggested that the term “lifting heads” means “to be remembered”. Usually, those thrown in jail would be forgotten from the memory of the king for many years until he decided to investigate their crime. So when Yosef told them that in three days they will be remembered, this was an opportunity for freedom (or death).
Moshe Rabbeinu was the Manhig of Klal Yisrael. HaShem commanded him, together with his brother Aharon, to personally count every Jew. It was not sufficient to send out census takers to obtain the statistics; Moshe had to do it all by himself. HaShem wanted that Moshe personally meet each of the 600,000 Jews. Moshe had the Herculean task of knowing each Jew. The Ramban explains that each person would pass before Moshe and Aharon. They counted people by going from house to house, and in the process, learned about each family; how they lived, their problems and their joys. For the leader must know all his people.
This kind of a census gave the people a tremendous uplifting, for they will have a personal audience with the Manhig of Yisrael. This gave them status and a feeling of importance. “Se’uh Et Rosh Bnei Yisrael”- Lift our head and raise our spirit for being counted is an indication that WE COUNT. We are now a “Davar Sheh’be’minyan” a commodity that is counted, and a Davar Sheh’be’minyan is never Bateil-it is never insignificant.