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"Take a census of the entire assembly of the Children of Israel according to their families according to their fathers' household, by number of names, every male according to their head count." [Bemidbar 1:2].
(Adapted from Avi Hayeshivos, cited in Moreshes Avos, IV, pg. 10).
Parshas Bemidbar begins with the counting of Klal Yisrael. There were two different censuses taken in the book of Bamidbar - one at the beginning of the forty-year sojourn in the desert and one at the end of the forty years. It is for this reason that Sefer Bamidbar is referred to by the Talmud as Chumash haPekduim (the Book of the Countings). For a similar reason, it is referred to in non-Jewish sources as the Book of Numbers.
In Hebrew, there are different ways to express the activity of counting. One is "lifkod" another is "limnos". Here the pasuk uses the peculiar expression - literally "lift up the heads of all the children of Israel".
Rav Yissocher Frand quotes the Shem me'Shmuel who comments that the census here was an ego builder. The fact that everyone was counted individually was a way of emphasizing the self-worth of each individual. In effect, every person was told: "You count!" This experience "lifted their heads".
It is interesting to note that in the 2000 U.S. Census, there was a great commotion because people did NOT want to participate. They did not want to fill out the form and they did not want to answer the questions. This is a totally different mindset than that envisioned by the Torah's census of "lift the heads of the Children of Israel". For us, it is an honor to be counted! That is because when Hashem counts us, it is for our benefit. But when people take count, it is not good for the Jews. It opens up the door to trouble.
In Yoma 22b, Rav Yitzhak said: It is forbidden to count the people of Israel, even for a mitzvah… Rabbi Elazar said: whoever counts Israel transgresses a negative commandment... Rav Nahman bar Yitzhak said: he transgresses two negative commandments.
This issur, goes so far that the Pri Hadash (Orach Chaim 55:1) poskins that "One must be careful not to count Jews by the head to see if there is a minyan or not, for we say in Yoma... 'it is forbidden to count Jews even for a mitzvah...' ". (Also see Kaf Hachaim to Orach Chaim 55, paragraph 11 for other authorities who agreed). The Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 15:3) quotes the Pri Hadash and adds: "And it is customary to count them by saying the verse 'Hoshi'a es amecha' etc. (Tehillim 28:9), which contains ten words".
The concept of a family name is quiet recent. As we know in Jewish law a person is called ploni the son of ploni, and that is how he is recognized in shul, in contracts, etc. For endless centuries that was the custom all over the world. In 1804 there went out an edict throughout the Russian empire that every that every family adopt a family name to be used by them and all their descendants. Everyone should make up a nice family nickname. It could be a grandfather's name, an ancestral trait, a home town, whatever he is comfortable with. But he must choose a family name.
This edict gripped the Jews with fear and worry. Who knows what it really means. What kind of scheme was hiding in this seemingly innocuous edict? As the suspicions grew, people became doubtful how to respond. Should they abide by the government order or balk and ignore it. Do they have to go down to register with the authorities the new family name, or perhaps the Czarist dictatorship just wanted to tighten its grip on the movement of its citizens and crush them even more.
What do Jews do at such times? They turn to the eyes of the community, the talmidei chachomim. The Lithuanian Jews turned the sha'alah over to Rav Chaim Volozhin, while the Chassidim went to the Ba'al HaTanya. Separately from each other, the two Torah giants came to the same conclusion. Try not to cooperate and find some excuse to ignore the decree and don't register.
The Ba'al HaTanya supported his decision with the following reasoning: The angel of Esav is sheker (lie). And you can't deal with a liar truthfully. Therefore we have to use sly subterfuge in dealing with the government. Rav Chaim based his psok on the Midrash: "You have wandered around this mountain long enough; turn northward" (Devorim 2:3). The word "northward" in Hebrew is tzafona. The Midrash darshans, "If you see Esav desiring to start up with you, don't stand up against him. Rather hide yourself (tzafon) from him." This Midrash is instructing Klal Yisroel how to deal with the goyim during our galus. Don't stand up and wage an outright war. Rather, hide yourselves until the wrath is over. When the enemy conceals a trap to catch us, you can't resist it directly. Instead, slip away and hide from him until the fury dies down.
In the end the hidden plans of the Czar came to light. The edict was a ploy to get everyone to register all their family members so the government could have an organized and updated list in order to draft their citizens into compulsory enlistment in the Russian army.
Shema Yisrael Torah Network