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|G-d spoke to Moses in the Sinai Desert…saying, "Count the entire assembly of the Israelites according to the house of their fathers..." As the Almighty commanded Moses, so he counted them in the Sinai Desert (1:1-2,19).
This passage contrasts strongly with the story of the occasion that King David counted the Israelites (Sam.II 24, Chron. I, 21). Although the above census was ordered by G-d, it seems permitted to count the people without Divine instruction: as it states, 'When you count the Israelites…" (Ex. 29:11). What characteristics made the census in this Parasha a positive event? What was lacking in David's count of the Israelites that made him an object of G-d's wrath? Indeed, the account in Chronicles I records David's census as a product of Satan's work.
In distinguishing between the two censuses, the one carried out by Moses had the following characteristics:
1. It had a specific purpose – to prepare the inheritance of the Promised Land. The text tells us that the Israelites were counted according to the number of men of military age. The census took place at the time when the Israelites were preparing to enter the Holy Land – before the sin of the Spies caused this event to be delayed for forty years. The Israelites had forfeited some of G-d's protection through the Golden Calf. G-d would not simply remove the Canaanites for the advancing Israelites. The Land would become theirs through both His help and His people's military organization and operations.
2. It was designed to benefit the Israelites through bringing them face to face with their leader and prophet, Moses. Indeed, the Hebrew word used – se-uu – is understood by the Ramban to mean 'raise'. For the process of being counted brought each person in personal contact with the greatness of Moses and Aaron. The words 'by the number of names' means that all eligible, individually, gave their names to Moses and Aaron (Ramban 1:2). This meant that Moses was not a remote figure, but someone who became personally known to all. And the Israelites were to be the greater for it – as both individuals and as a nation.
3. It gave the opportunity for the tribes of Israel to succeed through directing their G-d given individuality to His service. At the time of the Giving of the Torah, the Israelites were as one people – 'as one man with one heart' (see Rashi to Shemot 19:2). Unity was necessary to bring the Divine Presence to the Israelites – which came through the Revelation at Mount Sinai. But however much unity in thought and purpose was desirable at that moment, it was not a long-term ideal. Now that the Divine Presence was established through the Tabernacle, the Israelites had to develop their G-d given gifts – their personal and tribal individuality. So when G-d commanded Moses to take the census this time, he was told to 'raise' the Israelites. This meant that the purpose of the census was not just to record the number of people, but also to spiritually develop those very people through the process of counting them. He was told to do this by recognizing the individuality of each person – 'by the number of names'; and the diverse, distinct characteristics of each tribe – 'according to the tribes…according to the flags'. This was the next opportunity for the spiritual development of the Israelites – to grow within the Torah framework by developing their individual strengths, and not just emulate a single model. Thus 'according to the tribes': each tribe had special characteristics, as were enumerated by Jacob on his death (Bereishit 49), and confirmed and developed by Moses at the end of his life (Devarim 33). And 'according to the flags with the insignias of the fathers' houses' (2:2) - the Midrash (Bamidbar Rabba 2:6) brings the tradition of the colors and insignias: for example Levi's was white, black, and red, with the Urim and Tumim; Gad's was grey, with a battalion of soldiers, and so on.
4. The census actually gave something to each person who took part. For according to Rashi, Ramban, and Rabbeynu Bachya, the Israelites in this case were counted the same way as in the earlier census: by each giving a half shekel, which went to the Tabernacle. The Israelites benefited in the knowledge that they therefore purchased equal shares in the Divine Service in the Tabernacle.
G-d's anger with King David, according to the Ramban, had nothing to do with his counting of the Israelites per se. It was the reason David conducted the census that was at fault. The country was not at war; there was no pressing need to know the population statistics. True he had erred in thinking that the rule of using half shekels for counting people only applied to the generation in the desert. But the punishment does not seen to be for that error. It was because he wished to, 'gladden his heart because he reigned over such a numerous people'. Thus the Ramban shows that it is the intent and not the act which determines whether the count is proper.
In addition, David's census did not aim to use the occasion to improve the spiritual or physical welfare of his people. It was just a census – an act unaccompanied by anything positive. On David's spiritual level, that was reprehensible.
As a child, I remember how we dealt with the vexed problem of birthday parties at home. My Father did not like the idea of just having 'a party', but he would insist that it would be combined with Torah learning. Thus I invited my friends to a 'joint siyyum and birthday party', the first part of which took months of preparation. The party was not the usual entertainment, but it became a much more spiritually meaningful – and no less enjoyable – Torah event.
We learn from this discussion that Torah expects us to sanctify even the most routine acts - in this case carrying out a census - to his service – both in Mitzvot between ourselves and G-d, and in Mitzvot between each other.
This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
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