Photo Credit:
Rabbi Avi Weiss

This week’s portion contains a counting of the Jewish people. Nachmanides offers several ideas to explain the reason for such a census. Each reason has a deep message.

First, the census expresses God’s mercy. When Yaakov came to Egypt he brought with him only seventy souls. Now, thanks to God’s strong and compassionate hand in Egypt, the Jews were a stronger nation as they prepared to enter the land of Israel in large numbers.


The message: one should not take God’s gifts for granted. Proper thanks are due to the Almighty for the existence, growth, and success of the people of Israel. The census was a way of saying “todah rabbah” to God.

Nachmanides also explains that each person received a special merit by virtue of being counted separately. Every single person, no matter their status in society, had to pass by the leaders, by Moshe and Ahron, and be counted. They set their eyes upon each person as an individual.

The message: In most countries when a census is taken, there is a great danger that the very people the census is supposed to benefit become mere numbers. As individuals, their names are secondary. In the Torah census, the accent is on the individual persona, showing us that each is created as unique and irreplaceable images of God.

Finally, since the Jews were preparing to enter the land of Israel, the count was necessary. It was important to find out how many soldiers were available for pending war. Invariably before wartime, the Bible almost always tells us a census was taken.

The message: while God is always there to help, no individual or nation should rely on miracles. As humans, we must do what we can in order to help ourselves. In this case, proper preparation was necessary before entering Israel.

These three views actually interface. A comment made by S. Y. Agnon illustrates the point:

Once a king reviewed his returning soldiers who had been victorious in battle. He was ecstatic upon their valiant return. But God is not like this type of king. God, the King of Kings, when reviewing the returnees, understands that they are not necessarily those who left with the same battalion. Individuals were killed in the war and they, unfortunately, would not be coming back.

Here we have the co-mingling of the three opinions offered by Nachmanides. When going to war, each soldier must be viewed as a person with endless value. Upon returning safely, all returnees ought to give thanks to the Lord.

These are important ideas worth remembering especially when considering current events. Too often it is tragically the case that an Israeli soldier is struck down and we in the Diaspora don’t know, or, having become so accustomed to these losses, fail to reflect on the tragedy. Those murdered become a mere number and we fail to feel the pain of the bereaved families and friends.

It should not be this way. A soldier killed defending the land and people of Israel is a deep loss not only for his family and friends but for all Jews. The same holds true for the loss of any of our sisters and brothers who are victims of terror.

May we be spared such losses.

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Rabbi Avi Weiss is founding president of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and senior rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale. His memoir of the Soviet Jewry movement, “Open Up the Iron Door,” was recently published by Toby Press.