Parashat B’midbar Sinai: Counting Ourselves As Israel

Parashat B’midbar Sinai: Counting Ourselves As Israel

(delivered by Rabbi Sacks on Saturday, June 4, 2022)

 We begin reading the Book of Numbers this week. It opens with the taking of a census. After the rather arcane matters we have been reading about in recent weeks—the sacrificial cult, laws of purity and impurity, skin eruptions, and bodily discharges, among others—the monotony and repetitiveness of today’s reading comes almost as a relief. The chieftains of each tribe are named, and an identical formula is recited, concluding with the number of men over the age of twenty—fighting men—in each tribe. For this is not a census of the entire people; rather it is an accounting of those who will make up an army to cross the desert. The Israelites have just celebrated the first anniversary of their liberation. They think they will shortly enter the Promised Land, but they are about to embark on a 38-year sojourn. So, perhaps unsurprisingly, they form an army to ensure a smooth crossing of the wilderness. Yet, we may ask, why the apparent preoccupation with numbers?

The Bible’s preoccupation with numbers parallels our own. Numbers lend specificity and veracity to a narrative. Whether it is the number of lives lost in a mass shooting incident or homes lost in a wildfire or the number of career home runs for a baseball player, numbers are concrete. They give the reader a means of taking hold of the story. Abraham was promised that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars in the sky and the sands of the sea, and yet here are Abraham’s descendants, and we are told precisely how many there are, at least how many fighting men.

Furthermore, large numbers have a way of lending gravity and importance to what is being described. Quantitative descriptions provoke an emotional response that qualitative descriptions often do not. We have a tendency to make judgments based on numbers and not make the effort to look beyond the raw data in our evaluations. Although numbers may excite us, frighten us, or bore us, they lend interest and even gravitas to a story, at least superficially. Yet by themselves, numbers do not lead to a deep understanding of either a text or of life.

So let us take a deeper look at the numbers. At the time of the Exodus, the Israelites comprised approximately 600,000 men, not including children.[1] Now, after a year in the desert, even after the killing of some 3,000 associated with the Golden Calf incident, as well as the death of even more in the ensuing plague, the Israelites now number 603,550 men of fighting age plus 22,000 Levite males over the age of one month. Modern Bible scholars have shown that these numbers cannot be understood literally. For example, if the numbers are correct the parents had 60 or more children.[2] Yet, even while the  the specificity is nonetheless intriguing.

The census occurs on several levels of particularity. The heads of the tribes are mentioned individually by name, and each paragraph concludes with the number of men in each tribe. Within these paragraphs, we are told that the counting was done according to clans and ancestral houses and that those in the census were counted by name (b’mispar sh’mot), though we are not given here the names of the ancestral houses or of the individuals. Finally, we are told the grand total of fighting men among the Israelites. The census of the Levites, carried out separately from the general census, proceeds in a similar manner, citing the names of the heads of the clans and the numbers in each clan, before enumerating the total number of Levites over the age of one month.

What we have here is a juxtaposition of the individual and the collective. We get a total number of Israelites, but it is made up of individuals with names, relationships, and histories. The Slonimer Rebbe,[3] in his commentary on Numbers, opines that the number of the Israelites—603,550—is equal to the number of words in the Torah. Just as the Torah is a unity made up of individual words, the People of Israel is a unity made up of individuals. Remove even a word and the Torah is incomplete. Remove even one person, Israel cannot receive the Torah. This, he suggests, is why in most years, as in this year, Parashat B’midbar Sinai is read on the Shabbat immediately preceding Shavu’ot.

This census is meant to remind us that the act of Kabbalat ha-Torah, receiving the Torah, is an individual one, performed collectively in community; or stated conversely, a collective act performed by individuals. The fulfillment of the Torah, the Slonimer teaches, can only be accomplished when k’lal Yisra’el acts in unity.

So the use of numbers in ways that are meant to divide us, to emphasize differences rather than similarities, and to create disunity and dissension, is not only a misuse and misrepresentation, but is a violation of the collective effort needed to bring light to the world. When we stand at Sinai to receive the Torah on Shavu’ot Sunday morning, we need to remember that while we do so as individuals, the act can only have true meaning when we do so as part of a collective, as part of k’lal Yisra’el.

Shabbat shalom!


[1] Exodus 12:37.

[2] Dr. Ben-Zion Katz, a professor of pediatrics at Northwestern University, and not a biblical scholar, tries to rescue the biblical text in his recent article, Recounting the Census: A Military Force of 5,500 (not 603,550) Men” by resurrecting an old (and debunked) claim that the word “elef” does not mean “thousand” but a contingent. This helps get the family size down to families averaging 9-10 children. But even that is way too high for an average family size in the Bible, I bring this to your attention to show that even those who want to preserve the traditional text know that the numbers cannot possibly be accurate on the surface.

[3] Rabbi Sholom Noach Berezovsky (1911-2000), served as the Slonimer Rebbe from 1981 until his death. He is known for his teachings published in many volumes, entitled Netivot Shalom. Slonim is a town in present-day Belarus. The dynasty was founded by Rabbi Avraham Weinberg (1804-1883). The current Slonimer Rebbe is Rabbi Sholom Noach Berezovsky’s son, Rabbi Shmuel Berezovsky.

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