“Count the entire assembly of the Children of Israel, according to their families, according to their fathers’ households, by number of the names, every male according to his head count.”
The book of BaMidbar is called Numbers in general literature precisely because this census is the first commandment in this book. The repeated counting of the people needs to be explained and Rashi offers us a beautiful comment: “Because of His love for them, He counted them at all times. When they left Egypt He counted them, and when they died at the [Golden] Calf He counted them, to know how many were left. When He came to rest His Presence on them He counted them. On the first of Nisan the Tabernacle was erected, and on the first of Iyar He counted them” (Rashi).
After the erection of the Tabernacle, G-d instructs Moses to conduct a census of all the people. The purpose was to allow the Shekhinah, G-d’s presence, to rest upon them. The number of people mattered since the greater the number that joined in unity to serve G-d, the more radiant and magnificent would be the Presence of the Almighty in their midst. The Chatam Sofer adds that the greater the number of people uniting to fulfill His will, the greater would be the Revelation.
Modern society attempts to erase all differences and level the field in order that all distinctions are erased. This equalization of all people, actions, styles, and activities tends to debase everything and rob people of their intrinsic identity and dignity. On the contrary, one of the basic teachings of the Torah is that there are hierarchies in the universe. People are different, places are different. There are people who are simple, not having reached their potential or just living unexamined lives, and there others who constantly strive to improve themselves and come ever closer to the potentiality that G-d implanted in them. These are the tzadikim who build and maintain the world. Similarly, there are places that have greater holiness than others, and our behavior and approach must take these differences into account.
Just as stars move independently of each other and radiate their own light to the rest of the galaxies, so every person is a universe
Just as the level of revelation is not the same in every location, it also varies according to the number of Jews present. Our Sages tell us, “Everywhere where there are ten people, the Shekhinah rests” (Sanhedrin 39a). The presence of the Shekhinah may be stronger where more people gather to pray or observe mitzvot. The greater the group, the greater the Divine Presence will be. As Rashi comments, “A small number of people who fulfill the Torah is not the same as a large number of people who fulfill the Torah” (Rashi on VaYikra 26:8). The Rabbis add, “In large gatherings, the Glory of the King intensifies.”
It is noteworthy that the census is not just of individuals coming on their own but rather counted as members of families, then tribes, as the Torah commands it: “according to their families, according to their fathers’ households.” Although they all descended from one man, Jacob/Israel, they had attained such diversity of dispositions and traits that the Torah respects and wishes to maintain. Each tribe, each family, and each individual has something to contribute that another entity may not. That is the reason why the people do not come as a disjointed mass but rather as members of families and tribes. The Arizal comments that there are twelve gates in Heaven, each to receive the prayers of each tribe. The prayers of each individual tribe ascend through a different window, to indicate that the different personal characteristics and traits are appreciated in Heaven as well (Shaar Hakavanot).
Ramban observes the fact that as they were counted, each person had to present himself in front of Moses and Aaron and thus received a special audience with them. The census therefore highlights the individual as a separate entity, separated from the whole and endowed with special talents and assigned to unique roles in the universe. No two people can do the same. By creating Man as a single unit, G-d taught the world that each man is a world in and of itself. The Rabbis teach us that each person must say to himself, “It is for my sake that the world was created” (Sanhedrin 4:5). Each person should recognize his own sense of importance and dignity. No person has been created with inferiority; no person can blame his wickedness on his creation just as no one is prevented from reaching great heights if he so wishes.
The census teaches us that every person is valuable. That is why the Torah, when speaking about the number of Jews, compares them to the stars. Just as stars move independently of each other and radiate their own light to the rest of the galaxies, so every person is a universe. Every Jew, regardless of his own particular level of Torah and mitzvot, is a crucial part of the nation. We need every Jew to bring to us the Glorious Presence, His Shekhinah, to the world. Just as a point is determined in a cloth by its relation to the warp and the woof of the fabric, each person is a part of the warp, the whole, and on the other hand he is his own link, the woof added to the whole. A Jew must hold the view that he is an individual like no other and at the same time understand that he cannot function alone. He cannot withdraw and live a Jewish life by himself. We need communities where the value of the individual is acknowledged, where differences are not feared, and where the unique gifts that G-d implanted in each soul are nurtured, appreciated, and honored.
Rabbi David Algaze is the founder and Rav of Havurat Yisrael, Forest Hills. He is a noted public speaker and author and is the President of the international Committee for the Land of Israel.