Sefer Bamidbar is appropriately named in English “Numbers” because it begins with a census. 

 

“Count the heads of all of the congregation of the children of Israel according to their families, by their fathers’ houses, according to the number of names, every male individual. From twenty years old and above, all that are fit to go out with the army of Israel, number them by their hosts, you and Aharon. (Bamidbar 1:2-3)”

 

According to Rashi, the census was a sign of God’s love of the Israelite people. He points out that they were counted on the 15th of Nissan after they crossed the Red Sea, on the 17th of Tammuz after the Golden Calf incident, and again on the first of Iyar. Rashi also points out that God constantly counts the Jewish people out of love.

 

It is interesting to note the gap between the Biblical text’s explicit reason for the census, and the reason put forth by Rashi. If the census were to be carried out as a sign of Divine love of the Jewish people, would that census not be more complete? Wouldn’t age and gender be eliminated as factors in the census? We also see that Levites were not counted in the census. If the census were taken because of God’s love, then they would certainly have been counted!

 

We might be able to see that the message of the Torah is in the gap between the explicit meaning and the rabbinic interpretation. As the Rambam wrote in the Guide to the Perplexed (3:32), much of what God commanded the Jewish people in the Written Torah was commanded there because “it is impossible to go suddenly from one extreme to the other. It is therefore according to the nature of man impossible for him to suddenly discontinue everything to which he has been accustomed…. The custom which was in those days general among all men, the general mode of worship in which the Israelites were brought up, consisted in sacrificing animals in those temples which contained certain images…. It was in accordance with the wisdom and plan of God, as displayed in the whole Creation, that He did not command us to give up and to discontinue all these manners of service…. He transferred to His service that which had formerly served as a worship of created beings, and of things imaginary and unreal, and commanded us to serve Him in the same manner; to build unto Him a temple….”

 

For Moshe and his brother to take a census that included only able-bodied men who were not already dedicated to religious service was an act that made sense to them. As we can infer from Athenian democracy which existed many centuries afterward, in which only free-born Athenian men above the age of twenty were considered citizens who had voting rights, a census that included every member of society was beyond what people of that time could conceive of. This may be why the census actually commanded to Moshe and Aharon was a pragmatic and patriarchal one. The real motivation behind the census may have been Divine love, but it needed to be carried out in ways that human beings of that time could comprehend.

 

In education, there is a term: “i plus one.” “I” is the student’s current level of skill or knowledge. The teacher encourages the student to take the manageable step from “i” to “i plus one.” Not plus two or plus twenty. Plus one. Only a small, manageable amount of new knowledge or skill that builds upon what the student already has can be digested. Anything more would lose the student. Likewise, the Torah instructs us to take that same kind of step: “i plus one.” 

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