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And Hashem spoke to Moshe in the Wilderness of Sinai, in the Tent of Meeting, on the first day of the second month, in the second year after their exodus from the land of Egypt, saying. "Take a census of the entire assembly of the Children of Israel according to their families, according to their fathers' household, by number of the names, every male according to their head count” (Bemidbar 1:1-2).
Rashi explains: “Because they are dear to Hashem, He counts them often; when they went forth from Egypt He counted them; when many of them fell in consequence of their having worshiped the golden calf He counted them to ascertain the number of those left; when he was about to make His Shechinah dwell amongst them, He again took their census; for on the first day of Nisan the tabernacle was erected and shortly afterwards, on the first day of Iyar, He counted them.”
How does counting the Israelites show that they are dear to Hashem?
In the Talmud, there is a concept of bitul berov – a loss of significance, as a result of having become intermingled within a larger amount. In street language it means, “Getting lost in the crowd.” When a smaller amount of an item becomes intermingled within a larger amount, it is as if the smaller amount ceased to exist. For example, if one piece of non-kosher meat inadvertently fell into a pot of kosher meat sixty times its amount (in certain situations even less is required), the non-kosher meat loses its identity and it is permissible to eat the entire amount (although some hold that the Rabbis decreed to take out one of the pieces and discard it anyway, there is no way of ascertaining that the displaced meat was, indeed, the non-kosher one).
However, the Talmud explains that a “significant item” does not become batel just as a prominent person is never “lost in the crowd.”
What is it that makes an item be considered “significant?” One of the indications is if it is sold by the piece rather than by weight. One would never sell diamonds by the pound like potatoes. They are too significant to be treated that way. Similarly, anything sold by the piece is considered “significant” and does not lose its identity even if it fell into a quantity one thousand times its size.
Similarly, counting the Jews shows their significance. Every single Jew is a prominent individual; part of the Chosen Nation. He cannot lose his identity even if he is intermingled, by choice or against his will, among the Gentile Nations. He will always stand out, for better or for worse, as a Jew.
Sometimes one may feel that he is so estranged from Hashem, that He probably has forgotten him. But suddenly, the Almighty sends him an indication that He still remembers him and loves him. This knowledge alone is enough to encourage him to mend his ways and return to his Father in Heaven.
A story is told about a chassid who lived in Europe where he taught his Rebbe’s way of serving Hashem to all who would listen. Before Pesach, the chassid would distribute matzos to the Jews in his community. One year, he got a message from his Rebbe to deliver some matzos to a Jew in a far-off place in a neighboring country. Normally this would not present any problem. However, the Rebbe didn’t tell him the name of the recipient! Being a chassid though, he had unquestioning faith in his leader and traveled to the designated destination to find “a Jew” to present with matzos from the Rebbe.
When he got there though, he discovered that it was more difficult to succeed in his mission than he had envisioned. In this post-Holocaust era, he found that this town was judenrein, and that not one single Jew lived there. He asked in the local post office, in large and small stores, and in the streets; but no one knew of any Jew living in that forlorn district.
The chassid had lots of other things to do before the holiday and was losing precious time. His car was also running out of gas. He pulled into a gas station to fill up and decided to make one last attempt to find “a Jew” in this town to give the matzos to. He asked the gas attendant if he knew, perhaps, of anyone Jewish living in this area. The fellow shook his head but suggested that he ask the boss who had been living there much longer than he. At the point of despair the chassid entered the office and asked the boss if, by any chance, he knew of a Jew in these parts. The man was visibly shaken and asked him why he was searching for a Jew when everyone knows there haven’t been any Jews here since the war. The chassid explained that his Rebbe had told him to deliver a special religious item which Jews use on the upcoming holiday of Passover to “a Jew” in this town, but he has been searching for one all day long to no avail.
Tears began to flow from the man’s eyes as he asked the chassid to sit down and listen to his story. ‘I am a Jew,” he began, much to the chassid’s surprise. “After the Holocaust, having lost my entire family and, consequently, my faith in G-d, I married a non-Jewish girl and moved to this totally non-Jewish community where no one but my wife had any idea that I am Jewish. Ever since our marriage, I don’t practice anything which has any connection to Judaism. Except one thing. I never attended Church with my wife. That was one thing which went against my grain and it was a red line which I wouldn’t cross. My wife understood my feelings and accepted the fact.
“One day, the priest asked my wife, who is a regular Church attendee, how come he never sees her husband with her. At first she tried to give flimsy excuses about my poor health etc., but the Priest persisted to pester her about my constant absence. Finally, one day, she told him the truth; that I am Jewish and, that although I practice no Judaism I feel that my place is not in a Christian Church.
“One day, the Priest came to visit me. When he asked me why I never come to Church, I confirmed that I am Jewish and that Church is no place for a Jewish boy to be. He asked me about my lifestyle, and, after I described it, he said to me, ‘You know, the way you live, I’m sure that even your G-d must have forgotten you! I see no reason why you cannot join your wife when she comes to Church. Think about it.’
“Those words really shook me up and I did think about them, day and night. As a matter of fact, that’s all I’ve been thinking about since the Priest spoke to me. Could it be, I wondered, that G-d has indeed forgotten me? And if so, why shouldn’t I go to Church like everyone else around here? Still, it seemed liked a major step; one I was hesitant to take and from which, I realized, there would be no return.
“Finally, at my wit’s end, I said something like “a prayer” to G-d. I asked Him if it was true that He had forgotten me. I told Him that if He had, I would begin attending Church with my wife. And I asked Him that if He had not forgotten me, that He let me know somehow. I gave Him until today to make some sort of contact with me; otherwise I would make this biggest step of my life.”
With tears flowing freely down his face, the trembling man concluded, “Now that you have suddenly come, out of the blue, to bring me matzos for Pesach, it is a clear sign that Hashem has truly not forgotten me. And now I know that I have to return to Him and go in His ways, although I find them difficult to understand.”
The chassid, too, was crying as he promised to help him find the way back, and to understand as much as we can in this world.
Every single Jew is part of the Nation of Israel which is constantly counted by Hashem as a sign of endearment. He is a person of significance and can never lose his identity, even when completely intermingled among the Gentiles. Hashem will never forget him and will even send His trusted emissaries to help him come back home.
Shema Yisrael Torah Network