Parshat Bamidbar

The book of Bamidbar is more than a book of Numbers, it is the move from the redemption from the slavery in Egypt, to the creation of a viable orderly community with leadership and personal responsibility. The Parsha opens with the choosing of twelve leaders, by name, one from each tribe and in continuation, all the way through the book of Bamidbar we have a series of dramas with individuals taking the stage and noted by name, from Korach to Joshua, Caleb and the spies, Pinchas, and last but not least, the five daughters of Zolofchod.

Here, as the first organizational task, Hashem requests Moshe and Aaron to take a census, stressing that the count should include every individual, by name. In verse 18 there is a brief description of how this was done “And they called the assembly together, on the first day of the second month, and each declared their ancestry (vayityaldu) by their family, by the house of their father, by name, from twenty years old and upward, one by one.”

This description, with the unusual Hebrew word vayityaldu, translated by some as ancestry and by others as pedigree, needs to be understood. Rashi is the opinion that each individual had to bring his family ancestry with witnesses to prove that he belonged to that tribe, whereas Ibn Ezra understands that it was just a matter of showing his “birth certificate” to prove that was at least twenty years old and eligible for recruitment to the army.

Interestingly, here we have a census, where each tribe is counted, different from that earlier in Shemot, where all gave a half shekel, but there was no head count per tribe. The Netziv explains what happened here through a clue based on just one missing letter in the text. When each tribe was counted, the verse starts with “livnei – to the children of,” however with the last tribe Naftali, we just get “benei – the children of” with the first letter “lamed” missing. He explains that the census was done by each person writing their name and tribe and placing their note in an enormous box. Each tribe leader then came along, sorted through and picked out his tribe’s notes, so at the end only the notes belonging to Naftali, were left. The Netziv explains that in this way each tribe leader had a list of the individual names and family association. This was the first step in planning and organizing the army and I would not be surprised if on these notelets, the potential conscripts requested how they wanted to serve.

This census was the opportunity to get to know the people and their potential. Here we are at the point where responsible management was needed to move more than two million people through the desert, with the constant risk for war and conflict on the way. The leaders needed to know what manpower was available for fighting, logistics, intelligence, and officer material, and the family background could be very useful in the correct placement of each recruit.

The Book of Bamidbar is also called sefer hapekudim – the book of counting, but the word pikud also means responsibility. In Bamidbar Hashem hands over responsibility to Bnei Yisrael to manage their lives, but nevertheless still demands clear rules for holiness. Hashem excludes the tribe of Levi from the census and lays out a clear set of rules and work schedule for the Levite maintenance of the Tabernacle, the realm of holiness

Interestingly, and just as our forefathers in Bereshit are presented as very human, we see our greatest leader Moshe Rabbenu, very human and constantly challenged with the responsibilities of leadership, over our stiff-necked people. Without wishing to return to our current crisis, this is where we are today, with new challenges facing us. Our leaders worldwide have needed and still need to make responsible decisions for the wellbeing of the people and not to leave it to the heavens above. Please let us all continue to be careful and responsible in our decisions so we can continue to be counted.

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