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   by Jacob Solomon

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G-d spoke to Moses… Lift up the heads (count) of the entire assembly of the Israelites according to their families and the houses of their fathers… by the number of names… you and Aaron shall count them… As the Almighty commanded Moses, so he counted them in the Sinai Desert (1:1-2,19).

Moses took the census of the Israelites in the second year of their wilderness travel. The numbering was conducted on two levels: the tribal one, and the national one. As the Parasha recounts at length, each tribe was enumerated separately: 'according to their families, according to their fathers' houses' (1:20). But at the end, they were totaled as the united nation of Israel: at six hundred and three thousand, five hundred and fifty (1:46). The exception was the tribe of Levi, which was numbered separately. Having proved their loyalty to G-d in the aftermath of the golden calf, the Levites were to be elevated to the status of G-d's own legion (c.f. Rashi to 1:49) - Tabernacle-based, and at the service of all the tribes of the House of Israel.

This contrasts with King David's census (Sam.II 24, Chron. I,21). G-d continued to be 'angry with Israel' (no reason is given), and 'Satan' (Chron. 1 21:1) 'persuaded David to count Israel and Judah'. The total number of people was expressed as eight hundred thousand fighting men in Israel and five hundred thousand fighting men in Judah. For no stated reason, what David did was 'evil in the eyes of G-d' and he was given a choice of three punishments: seven years of famine, three months of suffering defeat at the hands of the enemy, or three days of national epidemic of pestilence. And David replied with what has become the opening words of the Tahanun prayer: "I am much distressed: let me fall into the hands of G-d for His mercy is great, but not into the hands of man" (Sam. II 24:14).

Many explanations have been given in explaining why David's census was 'evil in the eyes of G-d' (Chron. I 21:7), and why he smote Israel. My own suggestion is below.

Moses' census had the effect of unifying Israel on both levels. It gave them tribal identity - reflected in the number given for each tribe. But each tribe belonged to a much bigger whole - the House of Jacob, 'a kingdom of people and a holy nation' (Ex. 19:6). So Moses' census also consolidated the tribes into one nation - reflected in the number being given for the Israelites as a whole.

David, by contrast, inherited a divided nation. He was first only the king of Judah (whose separation from the Israelites appears to trace back to Judges 1:1-21), but the other tribes making up the kingdom of Israel only turned to him when the succession to King Saul broke down (Sam. I 5:1-2). Thus it appears that David was not ruling over one united House of Israel, but two separate kingdoms - each of which entered into their own separate arrangements with him. And during times of stress - namely in the rebellions of Absalom, and Sheva ben Bichri, the Israelites split into Judah versus the rest. [It was David's successor, Solomon, who succeeded to have held the tribes together, but it was an uneasy arrangement, and immediately came apart at the seam - permanently, on his death]

This explains the background of displeasure to David's census. Judah was destined to be a leader (Gen. 49:8-12), not a means of division amongst the Israelites. Judah and Israel were collectively a house divided. David had not given the matter attention during his reign. The census effectively gave David the choice - would David make use of the opportunity to count the people officially as means of unifying them, or emphasizing the divisions more deeply.

'Satan' 'persuaded him' to exacerbate the tribal divisions by giving it quasi-recognition: 'go and count Israel and Judah'.

David 'failed the test'. He counted Judah and Israel as two separate entities: The total number of people was expressed as 'eight hundred thousand fighting men in Israel and five hundred thousand fighting men in Judah'. No total was given. The census thus contrasted with this week's Parasha. Instead of it being used as a means of unifying the people, whilst recognizing tribal differences, it officially supported the rift between the House of Israel and the House of Judah.

'David' heart struck him' (Sam II 24:10) thus means that David 'got it'. Instead as using the census an opportunity of unifying the divided country, he followed the advice of Satan to enumerate the people separately and thus exacerbate an already delicate situation…

For those looking for more comprehensive material, questions and answers on the Parasha may be found at and on the material on the Haftara at .

Written by Jacob Solomon. Tel 02 673 7998. E-mail: 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:

Also by Jacob Solomon:
From the Prophets on the Haftara

Test Yourself - Questions and Answers


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