by R. Gidon Rothstein
Counting the Jewish People
Bamidbar is known as Numbers because of its many censuses, starting with three right at the beginning of the book, the Jewish people twice in a row (once by tribes only, then by encampments), and then the Levi’im separately. The Torah refers to the count of the Levi’im as having been al pi Hashem, 3;16, as if Gd did the counting.
Rashi supplies background: Levi’im were enumerated from a month old, leaving Moshe puzzled as to how he would find out how many babies there were–he couldn’t burst into other people’s tents! He says Gd told Moshe to do his part, go to the entrance of each tent, and a Heavenly Voice would announce the number [he assumes Moshe was not allowed to trust the families’ claims, that he or his assistants had to see the people they counted, an idea worth pondering]. To hint how it happened, the verse said it was by Gd’s mouth, as it were.
Perhaps the more obvious focus of the Rashi is on tzni’ut, respecting others’ privacy, not entering others’ spaces. We might skip over Rashi’s also assuming Moshe had to go to all the tents, despite the Heavenly Voice being able to reach him anywhere. Theoretically, Gd could have told Moshe those numbers without his wandering through the camp. Rashi in fact has Gd say “you do yours, and I’ll do mine,” an example of the Torah assuming the properly lived life involves a mix or balance between human efforts and divine aid.
When and How Well We Count
Ramban focuses on Gd’s using the verb root pkd for the census, the same root the Torah used to describe Gd’s allowing Sarah to conceive (or helping, by solving her infertility). He argues the word means to remember or pay attention—Gd paid attention to Sarah, and her’s and Avraham’s efforts paid off. Here, Moshe and Aharon are reminded to pay attention to each Jew.
It launches a long discussion of the proper roles of a census. II Shemuel 24;9 tells us David incurred punishment for counting the people. Although some thought it was because David counted them directly (rather than by having them give an object and counting the objects, as Sha’ul had), Ramban goes broader, says a census is not acceptable wherever there is no pressing need. There, they were not going to war, were not about to build a Mishkan, it was only to make David feel good about the nation he led.
It explains Yoav’s response, 24;3, let Gd bless them a hundred times, why count them? Bamidbar Rabbah 2;17 makes the point as well, any needed census did not cause a plague, unneeded ones did.
The realization the Torah resists quantifying the Jewish people (and how Gd has blessed them) reveals another problem in David’s census, his decision to count from age thirteen, to Ramban an effort at greater exactness than the Torah’s count from age twenty. Gd promised Avraham his descendants would be like the stars of the sky, Bereshit 15;5, to Ramban meaning they would be uncountable.
There are always technical challenges to a census; Ramban assumes there are also theological ones, the urge to know how many Jews exist, just for the sake of the knowledge, a problem in how we accept Gd’s blessings.
The Traveling Tribes
The second chapter of Bamidbar repeats the numbers, this time arranging the tribes by camps, the way they traveled in the desert. The Torah says the Jews camped according to the signs on their flags, otot, without telling us how the grouping was chosen.
Rashi, 2;2, links the flags’ color—his read of the otot, the signs–to the tribe’s representative stone on the hoshen, the kohen’s breastplate. For how the Jews knew this arrangement, he takes us back to Ya’akov, whom the Midrash assumes assigned this configuration for when his bodily remains were brought to burial in Kiryat Arba. Ya’akov set the tribes around his bier based on his deep insight into their roles and relationships, insights Rashi thinks would carry forward into the far future of the Jewish people.
Ramban offers two other ideas for their placement, first, their eventual role in the nation, for example that Yehudah was destined to rule, Reuven second as the first born. Second, Bereshit Rabbah 2;9 sees a link between how each direction affects the world and the tribes who camped there. For example, light comes from the east, and Yehudah, Yissachar, and Zevulun bring the world political, Torah, and financial light.
Ramban knows of more metaphysical explanations, too, meaning we cannot come to a clear conclusion about what the arrangement meant, but we know it meant something. It might have been about the brothers’/tribes’ relationships with each other, their role in the Jewish people, possibly socially, culturally, politically, or metaphysically.
It’s an example of where the Torah leaves an idea ambiguous, allows for lasting debate about the whole framework. For the tribes, we have many legitimate views of its symbolism, with the choice we make impacting our overall view of the Jewish people and its role in the world. (And the Torah does not see a need to insist on one or the other.)
Rashi twice pauses to note the effect of proximity for the tribes. We have not yet spoken about the Levi’im, who camped in an inner ring, separate from the rest of the people. 3;29 places the family of Kehat in the south, close to Reuven, for Rashi the reason Datan, Aviram, and the 250 other Reubenite leaders joined Korah’s cause, drawn in by living close to them. Nine verses later, 3;38, he notes the reverse, Yehudah, Yissachar, and Zevulun’s closeness to Moshe, Aharon, and his sons—who spent much of their time studying Torah– helped those tribes, too, become proficient in Torah.
The camps both reflected realities and produced them, a reminder that where we place or find ourselves affects who we become.
Levi’im: Separate for Unknown Reasons
Gd makes a point of counting the Levi’im separately. Rashi offers two reasons to segregate them, they are a ligyon shel Melech, a King’s legion, or because Gd foresaw the people enumerated here would be denied entry into the Land for their participation in the sin of the spies.
Despite the Levi’im being part of that sin, their previous refusal to worship the Golden Calf meant they would be allowed into Israel. It’s a comment that tells us to be careful when we consider the fairness of divine reward and punishment. Someone seeing the Levi’im reach Israel might complain about the unfairness of it, not realizing the other Jews were kept out because the sin of the spies was the tipping point, where the Levi’im’s account had not reached such a dire state.
I have said that before; this time, I am struck by the question of when and how the Levi’im became their own group. If they were already a King’s legion here , we have to look further back to find why (as we will, below). For the second view, it had not happened yet, but Gd knew it would, and signaled it here.
Counted From Birth
The Levi’im differed also in being counted from a month old, when we know the baby was not born too premature to be viable, where the rest of the people were enumerated from the age of eligibility for public service, twenty. The Levi’im are counted from viability, as opposed to age of public service.
Rashi quotes R. Yehudah berebbe Shalom, who connects the idea to Yocheved (Moshe’s mother), counted among the seventy descendants of Ya’akov to arrive in Egypt despite being born just as they arrived. It is a tribe accustomed to being counted from birth [there is a hole in the logic here, because Yocheved’s example only explains why her descendants count as soon as we know they are properly born; I assume he means she reflects her tribe].
Although Rashi does not give a reason (I assume it is a matter of their presence being a role in the nation, where other Jews contribute only when they are of age to contribute), his tracing it back to Yocheved tells us the Levi’im did not earn their role solely by refusing to worship the Calf.
Ramban gives another example. He notes the low numbers of Levi’im in chapter three, where the earlier count should have led to there being an unusually large number of Levi’im. To him, it reflects Tanchuma Va-Era’s idea the Levi’im were never enslaved in Egypt. Tanchuma elsewhere attributes the people’s startling population rise to Par’oh’s attempt to stem their tide (Par’oh worries pen yirbeh, let they grow numerous, and Gd responds, Shemot 1;10, ken yirbeh, they sure will.)
Population growth with ordinary Jews was Gd’s way to prove Par’oh’s inability to do what he wanted. Since the Levi’im were not part of that, they did not grow so quickly; conversely, they were therefore each of them valued from birth.
We sometimes need to know how many Jews there are, although perhaps less often than we realize. We do need to set up the Jewish people in tribes and groups of tribes, with multiple possible messages to the setup, the Levi’im off to the side, with their own very different role, going back to Yocheved, our first example of Levi’im enhancing the Jewish people by their very presence