Weekly Torah - old

Bamidbar

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Oh no! Not another census! There was one after they came out of Egypt, another to provide the silver shekalim for the Tabernacle, another after the Golden Calf episode, and now this one in the second month of the second year. Rashi explains that it is because of the Divine love for Israel, rather like a shepherd constantly checking up, so the Children of Israel were always being counted. Yet counting is clearly considered problematic. Back in Ki Tisa, the idea of the shekel as the vehicle for counting was explained, so that “no plague would strike during the census”.

A census is, of course, a very important vehicle of information. The results can be used in many ways. In past years, census results in America revealed the rise of the Hispanic population, the rise of the population in some states and cities, and the decline in others. Those that stand to benefit trumpet out the results that reinforce their claims. Results that are negative are hushed up. Numbers also brought commitment, leadership, and a bigger burden of responsibility.

So a simple mechanical process carries with it rewards and negative impacts. Some tribes would have gloried in their numerical strength and others would have tried, like the Levites, to assert other criteria for importance over and above pure numbers.

The notion that every person is equally important is reflected in the fact that everyone gave the same amount of money, and yet the age and the gender of the census implies a very definite militaristic aspect. From twenty to sixty, every male who could go out to war was counted. The Levites, on the other hand, were counted from thirty up to fifty. This might imply that Divine service is more arduous. And would anyone have suggested that women did not matter? Of course not. But the function of the census seems not to have required their participation.

So its impact and purpose were limited. The idea that it conveyed power or importance was effectively overruled and the intent seems to have boiled down to determining the duty rotas and obligations of society rather than the intrinsic value of its citizens.

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