Having spent years in slavery, the Israelites know what it’s like to be a number and not a name. The dehumanization of chattel is crucial to the conscience of the slaveholder, but it may be the greatest source of pain for the slave, even beyond the physical suffering he or she endures.
So why, just a year or so after the Exodus, would God instruct Moses to count the Israelites? Haven’t they spent enough time as mere numbers, nameless and faceless?
Two of our classic medieval commentators tackle this question without actually answering it. Indeed, they provide an answer to “why count them,” but don’t really address the “what was God thinking” question. Rashi (1040-1105) says that it demonstrates God’s love for Israel, for at every stage, God wants to be sure that none of the Chosen People has gone missing. It’s akin to checking the contents of your wallet after leaving the store to make sure nothing fell out.
Rashbam, Rashi’s grandson, is purely practical. It’s time to embark on the campaign to enter and conquer the Promised Land, so the census is an inventory of available troops. All males of military age will receive serial numbers, as it were. But again, it’s an accounting matter. The Israelites are numbers. How is this an expression of their freedom? In what way does counting them assure them that they have indeed left Egypt?
On Shabbat morning, we’ll see a third interpretation, that of Ramban, who adds the necessary ingredient to any meaningful exercise of stock-taking, and transforms the census into something sacred. We’ll also look at this passage through the eyes of one of the great Jewish philosophers of the 20th century, and look for sacred vignettes even in the most transactional of experiences of our own time.
Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom,