Thursday, 18 May 2023

Written by Andrea Kulikovsky

Something missing

“Moses and Aaron took those men, who were designated by name, and on the first day of the second month they convoked the whole congregation, who were registered by the clans of their ancestral houses—the names of those aged twenty years and over being listed head by head. As God had commanded Moses, so he recorded them in the wilderness of Sinai.” (Numbers1:17-18)

Only a month before this census was ordered, before the construction of the Tabernacle, God commanded Moses to take another census of the Israelites. Rabbi Leslie Bergson suggests that in the census before the Tabernacle, the people were numbered as a nation, while in this census, they are counted within their tribes. But why is it necessary to count so many times a people who had just emerged from slavery?

“Because they were dear to God, God counts them all the time – when they left Egypt, God counted them; when many of them fell from having worshiped the golden calf, God counted them to see how many were left, when the Shechinah (divine presence) was about to dwell among them, God again took his census, for on the first day of Nissan the Tabernacle was erected and shortly afterwards, on the first day of Iyar, God numbered them.” Rashi explains.

His grandson, Rashbam offers a much more practical reason. The first census was to allow people to make a half-shekel contribution to the Sanctuary. This census is to prepare the military campaign to take the land hence to count men over the age of 20 for military service. However, Nahmanides adds that, in this census, people are counted by their names, giving each member of the nation the chance to present himself before Moshe and Aharon and be recognized as an individual of personal value.

Just as when we go on a group tour, the first census was simply made to count the population, to know how many people were leaving slavery, and beginning the journey. Once the commandments have been received, they were established as a people, and it was necessary to recognize groups, families, individuals and count them as so.

But there is something missing. And the first thing that stands out is the absence of women, children, elderly, and the sick. We can understand that in that society they did not fight in battles and that they did not exercise the priesthood. But what is the designated place for them in the Israelite camp and in this journey? We do not know the answer as everything mentioned in this parasha refers to men who were fit for battle or serving God. As observed by Dr. Ellen Frankel, “As a result of this census, the women now disappear from view, uncounted […] the rabbis almost always talk about the 600.000 who stood at Sinai, not acknowledging that they are including only the men numbered in this census. The rest of us are still waiting to be counted.”

These men, however, are sons of women. The tribes are descendants of Leah, Rachel, Bilhah, and Zilpah, and it is according to their mothers that the tribes are distributed in the camp, organized to rest and to march. Moreover, God is at the centre of the camp. The entire organization of the camp was set around the Tabernacle, as if the people, distributed according to their mothers were the members of a body that was constituted by the Tabernacle, the dwelling place of God.

Based on Bamidbar, we could argue that men fit to serve the army are the ones who really count, as they are the ones included in the census. In the Torah, women and children are generally absent from the accounts and narratives. Those who are counted have special value to society, while those who are not may be considered less valuable because they are less visible. Then we understand that visible and invisible individuals count through their role in our group. The central reason that makes all of us one adat – a group, a community – is God.

“The Divine may come to life in individual man, may reveal itself from within individual man; but it attains its earthly fullness only where, having awakened to an awareness of their universal being, individual beings open themselves to one another” according to Martin Buber, to whom the Divine can only rise in true relationships between human beings in community.

Bamidbar reminds us that, as a community, we must strive to count each person, with their names and individualities, in their tribe and their stories, organized within the whole of our community, with a real space of belonging, recognition and participation. Every person counts and matters in our sacred space.


Andrea Kulikovsky LBC rabbinic student


The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.