COUNT ME IN, OR OUT —BAMIDBAR – Numbers 1:1—4:20, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon
This week we will read about a census. Moses had to confirm the numbers of the people he led, specifically men over 20 who qualified for military service. He also had to assign tribal leaders, lay out the camp, and delegate tasks to the tribe of Levi, whose duties were not military but religious.
Did this census take place on some special holiday? Not at all. We learn that it was on the first day of the month of Iyyar in the second year out of Egypt. And we know they crossed the Red Sea on the 7th day of Passover, the 21st of Nisan. So we find a period of 12 months and 10 days between countings. When the Israelites left Egypt, their draft-age men numbered 603,550. They walked through the desert for six weeks, received the Torah at Mount Sinai, shlepped on some 11 more months — and how many are left? 603,550. No more, no less. Coincidence? For every older man who died on that trek, did one 19-year-old turn 20? Looks that way, because that census was not a documented process. It was poll tax. Each man brought half a shekel, and that’s how he got counted. Now, before designating where each tribe would camp, Moses had to be sure that camp would be defended.
Where did Moses have to do all this? Bamidbar – in the desert. That word, that barren location, identifies not only this week’s reading but this entire book of the Torah. “Desert” is the Hebrew name. “Numbers” in English. It identifies the climate of our story. Again we register. Again we report to leaders. Again we take orders. Again our people must count us – and count on us – to defend them from violent enemies. Kol yo-tzey tzava – All who go to the Army. All who go to the IDF. There, in the desert.
Did we ever leave the desert? Or did the desert ever leave us? Past enemies made deserts out of verdant countryside. Today’s enemies bring their desert and their desert way of life with them. We still need to be counted. Are we all registered? Do we have leaders ready to defend us? We may not be confined to the desert any more, but we should be able to count — on each other.
Polls and surveys publish all kinds of numbers about us. What percentage of which generation is religiously observant? How many American Jews support Israel? Is the world Jewish population rising or falling? We can find numbers everywhere. And when we look for each other we may realize we are in the desert, divided, confused, lost.
Bamidbor/Numbers can wake us to realize that we are in fact the same people who left Egypt so many centuries ago. Whether we are 603,550 or a few million, we face the same challenges and inherit the same duty. Wherever we live, we must count. On each other.
Kol yo-tzey tzava – All go out to take action.