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G-d spoke to Moses… Lift up the heads (count) of the entire assembly of the Israelites… by the number of names… you and Aaron shall count them… (1:1-3).
This is the second time that Moses counted the Israelites. The first occasion was several months previously - when he counted them after the Chet Ha-Egel (Sin of the Golden Calf), through the silver half shekels, which were subsequently processed for structures in the Mishkan (Tabernacle).
Why was it necessary to count the Israelites a second time at all? There had not been a disaster that reduced the number of people since the first headcount. And this second occasion was not covered in a few sentences, but forms most of the content of the Parasha?
The Ramban links this census to the Israelites' preparation to enter and conquer the Promised Land. It was needed to prepare the military campaign, and to know how many people were eligible to receive portions in the Land.
Expanding this idea gives us an insight into the way the opening chapters of the Book of Numbers are structured, and what may be learnt from that structure.
The current generation of Israelites had been slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt. So the content of the first chapter was the census, enabling people to identify themselves with roots deeper than recent shared troubles. These were their ancestral heritage, the sons of Jacob from which they were descended, the tribe they belonged to.
Thus the census gave the people the personal pride of distinguished identity - not as helpless slaves, but of future conquerors (with the emphasis of 'male, over twenty, eligible for the army'), a people who were the masters of their own destiny. Each person was numbered according to his tribe. This was a foundation ceremony for each tribe, so the counting of each tribe is listed as a separate event.
And the tribe linked the person to his roots, and was to become the flag under which he was to make his conquest and settlement of the Land. Above all, as today, flags give a sense of belonging, and a uniqueness worth fighting for. (Indeed, the Levites, who were the only non-fighting tribe, were not numbered from the age of twenty.) And marching in the organized routine outlined in the second chapter links tribal identity with the order and discipline needed to conquer, and ultimately settle a land.
But the Israelite army was not to be a mere secular band of conquerors. It was an army with the Creator at its side in conquest, Who would guide the land lottery in the way the holy lands would be shared out amongst the tribes. That is why they were linked with worship - at that time centered at the Tabernacle. That helps to explain why each tribe bringing the inaugural offering is given (in the next Parasha) six verses to itself, even though the content is identical to the other tribes. Each tribe was to conquer a different part of the land; they each made their separate pledges to G-d through the Tabernacle…
This is the message of the census. It was a positive act, 'lifting up' (1:2) the people psychologically in putting them into exclusive ancestor-based groups, militarily in establishing rules of order in procedure, and connection with G-d through the tribal-specific inaugural offerings… An integral part of developing the Israelite people into a 'treasured people and a holy nation' (Ex. 19:6)
Written by Jacob Solomon. Tel 02 673 7998. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org for any points you wish to raise and/or to join those that receive this Parasha sheet every week.
Parashiot from the First, Second, and Third Series may be viewed on the Shema Yisrael web-site: http://www.shemayisrael.co.il/parsha/solomon/archives/archives.htm
Also by Jacob Solomon:
This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
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