By Shlomo Riskin
“When you lift up the heads of the children of Israel to count them (in a census), let each one give an atonement offering for his soul when they are counted, so that there not be a plague in the counting of them” (Exodus 30:12).
This opening verse of our Biblical portion teaches that it is forbidden to take a number count of the Israelites, a census activity which Jewish organizations are constantly involved in doing. This prohibition is reinforced by the prophet Hosea (Hosea, ch. 2), when he declares: “The number of the children of Israel shall be as the sands of the sea, which cannot be numbered and cannot be counted…”And historically even King David learned the bitter lesson of the power of this command, when — against the will of his Chief Commander Joab — he ordered a census, and the Israelites suffered a plague (II Samuel 24).
Why can’t we count Jews? What is the meaning of “giving atonement offering for his soul”? And didn’t Hosea realize that at no point in Jewish history were we ever “as numerous as the sands of the sea?”
The answer is to be found in a very strange incident during the judgeship of Gideon, great leader of Israel, against the Midianite enemy (Judges 6-7), which is cited by Britain’s former Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in his book Covenant and Conversation. God encourages war against Midian and so Gideon assembles 32,000 soldiers. God then says they are too many for Him to place Midian in their hands! Gideon allows exemption for those who wish to return home; only 10,000 remain. God maintains there are still too many and orders Gideon to take his men to a waterway and have them drink. Ninety seven hundred kneel down to drink; 300 lap up the water with their hands, remaining in an upright position. God has Gideon wage the battle only with the 300 who did not kneel – that is, with those soldiers who understand that it is only permissible to kneel before God. Even though the opposing Midianite forces were “innumerable,” like the sand at the edge of the sea (Judges 7:12)”, the small band of 300 won the day!
The message is clear. A census presupposes that there is strength in numbers, that numbers count. The Divine commandment forbidding a census comes to teach that when God is with Israel numbers become totally unimportant; to be alone with God is to always be with a majority of one. To be with God means to be righteous, to be committed to the cause, to believe in oneself, in one’s nation and one’s mission. A small band of dedicated people willing to sacrifice one’s life for a Divine cause — such as a Jewish homeland poised and inspired to teach the world about a God of love, morality, pluralism and peace – is automatically as numerous as the sands at the edge of the sea. Such an army contains soldiers willing to give up their lives (souls) as an atonement for God. That is why in our War of Independence, with a population of barely 600,000, we successfully defeated the Arab hordes.
Our Biblical portion begins by teaching that it is forbidden to count Jews in a census for the sake of comparison to other nations; it goes on to teach that, nevertheless, every single Jew within Israel certainly does count. Moses is atop Mt. Sinai (or in the supernal heavens) receiving the decalogue of morality from God, while the panicking Israelites, having expected their great prophet to return on the 40th day when he planned his return for the 41st day, worship the Golden Calf. God commands Moses: “Get down, because your nation whom you took up from the land of Egypt is acting perversely” (Exodus 32:7).
The Sages of the Talmud expand on God’s words: “Get down from our exalted state. I only gave you greatness because of your nation. Now that your nation is sinning, what do I need you for? “ (B.T. Berakhot 32a). God explains that He did not enter into a covenant with the elite, most dedicated Jewish scholars; God entered into a covenant with every single Jew, from the elders and judges to those who chop wood and those who draw water.
Just as a Holy Torah Scroll is invalidated by a single missing letter, so is historic Israel (Knesset Yisrael) invalidated if one Jew is disaffected.
Moses must go down to his errant nation and lift up each of the Israelites; restore every Jew to the commitment of the Divine message and mission. Yes, the Jews must not be counted, but each and every Jew certainly counts!
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat, Israel.