The Time to Count is Now

Rabbi Dr. Darrel Ginsberg

In this week’s parsha, God once again commands Moshe to count the Jewish people. For those who layn, it is an opportunity to breathe a little easier after the grueling stretch from Parshas Naso till now. Putting that minority perspective aside, the second counting is seemingly a repetition of the original census that took place at in Parshas Bamidbar. Was there a difference (other than the total)? The Torah alludes to a distinction in a manner that many would gloss over. It is a slight change in the structure of one pasuk that reveals how this second counting had an entirely new dimension to it.

At the end of Parshas Balak, the Torah records how Bnai Yisrael became involved in sexual improprieties with the women of Midyan. God sends a plague, killing 24,000 Jews, which ultimately is stopped through the actions of Pinchas. The Torah then describes Pinchas’s reward, as well as the commandment to wipe out the people of Midyan. Immediately after this, the Torah offers the following (Bamidbar 26:1):

"It was after the plague. God spoke to Moshe and Elozor, son of Aharon the kohein, saying:"

The juxtaposition of the end of the plague and the commandment to count within the same verse would seem to indicate that the Torah merely is telling us the timeline of when this counting took place. However, in a Sefer Torah, there is a clear break between the word “the plague” and “and he said” (expressed with the “peh” above), indicating a separation between the completion of the event of the plague and this commandment. In other words, on the one hand the Torah wants us to look at the verse as one concept, but by virtue of the separation by the pesucha, we are led to believe there are two different ideas. How do we resolve this?

Rashi senses this problem (based on the Midrash):

“This is compared to a shepherd whose flock was infiltrated by wolves, who killed some of them. He counted them, to ascertain the number of those remaining.”

What a nice analogy – usually, a comparison to shepherding implies a simple message. Shouldn’t Bnai Yisrael be counted again to determine who survived? Yet, thinking into this supposed “need” raises a clear problem-- why count Bnai Yisrael after this specific plague? No commandments existed to count after any of the other incidents when God punished the Jewish people. There were numerous episodes detailed in Parshas Behaloscha as well as the tragedy of the spies which resulted in many deaths among the Jewish people, and yet God does not command Moshe to count them at those times. There is another, more subtle question, revealed in a close reading of Rashi. In using the shepherd analogy, a number of sheep have been killed by a wolf. One can assume there was a sizeable quantitative effect on the total population. In the case of this plague, the Torah details a total count of 24,000 Jews being killed. Obviously, this is a tremendous tragedy. Yet, in a nation of 600,000 young males, which at that point in the history of Bnai Yisrael meant a total population (on the low end) of two million people, this plague would not have any discernible statistical effect whatsoever. Why are Bnai Yisrael referred to as “remaining,” when in fact it was a small minority that perished? How does the analogy carry through? 

Counting of the Jews, or of any nation, has its practical importance. For example, the United States Constitution (Article One, Section Two) requires that a decennial census be completed in order to determine the proper proportions for representatives and taxes (though it seems there are those who think there are other motives). Similar needs existed with Bnai Yisrael. Prior to entering Eretz Yisrael, it was crucial to count all the Jews to assist in dividing up the land (ibid, 52-56), as well as for the military and numerous other purposes. Therefore, one can assume that there was a need, regardless of the plague, to count the Jewish people before they crossed the Yarden. The question here is not whether or not there needed to be another counting. Rather, the issue is why at this time per se, rather than later/earlier. What is the significance of the timing of this commandment?

This is where the issue of the juxtaposition to the plague enters the picture. Rashi is trying to explain why, at this moment, the commandment came to count the Jews. Understanding his answer requires clarifying what differentiated this plague, and this sin, from other incidents in the Torah. Bnai Yisrael, in all previous episodes, rebelled against God and/or Moshe. Whether it was their slander of Eretz Yisrael, their turn towards idolatry with the golden calf, or the complaints expressing their desire to return to Egypt, Bnai Yisrael always focused their anger and frustrations against God and Moshe. Their insecurities, their inability to break from the slave mentality…these drove Bnai Yisrael to sin time and again. However, in the incident with the seduction by the women of Midyan, and the subsequent feasting and worshipping that took place (ibid 25:1-3), Bnai Yisrael committed a sin purely based on instinctual gratification. Their involvement with the women of Midyan was not a rebellion against God or Moshe as in previous instances—it was simply Bnai Yisrael giving in to their desires. The plague that God unleashed had a greater impact than simply the loss of 24,000 of Bnai Yisrael. It had a profound effect on the entire nation. It made them realize how easy it was to fall into the “trap” laid out by the women of Midyan. The inability to control’s one’s emotions is something that requires constant diligence—it’s far too easy to let desire overtake you. The impact on Bnai Yisrael was unique and their subsequent teshuva brought about an important shift in their perspective. And as a nation that had survived not only a great physical tragedy but also a deep psychological realization, God chose to count them. 

This approach may help clarify Rashi’s position. As mentioned above, the effect the plague had on the nation was profound. In a sense, each person felt that they survived a personal disaster. This could be what Rashi means by the “remaining.” Each individual was a survivor. As a result, God dictated that at this time, when Bnai Yisrael internalized this new state, they would be counted. So this counting becomes something more than a purely practical concept. The effect of the plague became the impetus for the count, the new state of Bnai Yisrael. 

The issue with the divided verse becomes clearer as well. Thematically speaking, the incident of the plague and the commandment to count are two completely different concepts. At the same time, the plague seemed to have a causal relationship to the new count. Having both in one verse demonstrates that there indeed is such a relationship. However, without the pesucha, one would think the count necessarily had to take place after the plague. The need to count existed regardless of the plague - but to have no break in the verse, one would assume the plague was an essential requirement in this counting. Breaking it up allows one to clearly see the conceptual delineation between the two. Thus, the Torah presents it as follows: the result of the plague was tied to the commandment, but did not necessitate the count. And the idea of the plague, the reason why this time was best suited, was due to the way Bnai Yisrael viewed themselves after the incident—they were a changed nation.