Torah’s call for counting of nation reinforces spiritual unity


In the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Bamidbar, the Torah relates that on the first day of the second month, God tells Moses to count the Jewish people.

This is the third time in the Torah that the Jewish people are counted, as Rashi (Rabbi Shlomoh Isaac, 11th century French Torah commentator) says, “They are counted often to show G-d’s love for them. When they left Egypt they were counted, after the worship of the golden calf they were counted to know how many were left, and now they are counted in order to make the Shechinah, the Divine Presence, dwell upon them, since now the Tabernacle is finished and dedicated for use. “

The purpose of counting the people this time is to facilitate God’s dwelling among them.

Two questions come to mind. First, how does the counting of the nation facilitate Divine indwelling?

And second, there is a tradition that is it not good to count people, as the book of Samuel says (II:24), “And David’s heart struck him after he had counted the people. And David said to the Lord, I have sinned greatly in what I have done; and now, I beseech you, O Lord, take away the iniquity of your servant; for I have done very foolishly…The Lord sent a pestilence upon Israel from the morning to the time appointed; and there died of the people from Dan to Beersheba seventy thousand men. “

According to Rashi this problem is solved by having each person give a half shekel and counting not the people but their shekels to arrive at their number.

According to the text and other commentaries though the shekels were not used in this counting and so one wonders whether the act of counting facilitates Godliness or brings a plague, and if Godliness, how so?

Rabbi Isaiah ben Avraham Ha-Levi Horowitz (16 century Eastern European commentator) in his kabalistic commentary, the Sheney Luchot Habrit, says that there are two kinds of counting, the counting of physical things and the counting of the spiritual.

The counting of physical things (e.g. counting people or counting your money while sittin’ at the table) can be negative and dangerous because this process highlights the things’ independence and disunity and their transitory nature their ultimate death or destruction.

When the Jewish people leave Egypt they are more physical than spiritual and so they must be counted with shekels.

Now they have the Torah and Tabernacle and God is about to be present among them.

They are completely spiritual and completely unified and so there is no more danger of counting them.

Rather, this counting serves to unify and thereby bring about God’s Presence among them. May we merit on these Shabbats before Shavuot much unity as one nation in order to receive the dwelling of the Diving Presence among us.

Rabbi Hyim Shafner of Bais Abraham Congregation, prepared this week’s Torah Portion.