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Bemidbar 5768

Parshat Bemidbar
(Hosea 2:1-22)
May 31, 2008
26 Iyar 5768

In Hosea\’s prophecies, extremely harsh messages are interspersed with messages of hope and solace. Sandwiched in the middle of Hosea\’s infamous image of the nation of Israel as a disloyal spouse to God, found in the first and second chapters of Hosea, we are presented with a curious blessing which breaks the profound angst: \”The number of the children of Israel shall be like that of the sands of the sea, which cannot be measured or counted; and instead of being told: \’You are not My people\’, they shall be called: \’Children of the Living God\’.\” (2:1)

The pshat or plain intent of this verse is obviously meant as a blessing, intended perhaps to assuage the despair-ridden harshness of the message that surrounds it. Its words, however, taken another way, when read as a command rather than as a message of hope, play an interesting role in a Jewish legal question. It is commonly known that Jews have a \”thing\” about counting people and taking a population census. This verse is integral to explaining why. In the Torah itself, when a census was required, it was accomplished indirectly through counting coins collected as a universal tax (the half shekel tax – See Ex. 30:11-16) Also, in a rather obscure story late in his career as king, David is seemingly punished for carrying out a census. (See 2 Samuel 24)

The Talmud, however, in one of two passages that take up this question falls back on the verse from our haftarah to explain the prohibition: \”R. Eleazar said: Whoever counts Israel, transgresses a [biblical] prohibition, as it is said: The number of the children of Israel shall be as the sand of the sea, which cannot be measured.\’ R. Nahman b. Isaac said: He would transgress two prohibitions, for it is written: ‘Which cannot be measured nor counted’. (Yoma 22b) The other passage (Berachot 62b) bases itself on the above noted story of David.

While the nature of this commandment, whether it is from the Torah or is merely a tradition, is a much debated question (See R. Asher Weiss, Minchat Asher, Numbers, pp. 1-8), Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk, one of the important 19th-20th century Lithuanian sages, drew an important socio-religious insight from this debate: \”It appears that when Israel join themselves together (cling to one another), they are likened to \’dust\’. When dust falls to the ground, no single particle is distinguishable from another. Sand, unlike dust, is granular, each particle is distinguishable. When Abraham and Jacob wanted to spread their beliefs about God, God promised them that they would be like the dust of the earth. They would be like \”dust\” because they wanted the nations to cling to their ideas about God like dust clings together. When Jacob realized that God\’s word would be spread by the twelve tribes that he had raised up, he became concerned that in spreading his beliefs, his children might succumb to the ways of the nations and assimilate among them like dust is indistinguishable from the ground around it. He now wanted his children to be distinguishable from the nations, just as each grain of sand is distinguishable from the others. He now wanted his children (the Jewish people) to have ways that made them different. Grains of sand, though they do not cling together, still when they are gathered together against the sea, they are able to withstand the onslaught of the sea. So, too, the Jewish people when they stand together, despite their differences, are able to maintain their identity. This is why Moses was allowed to count the whole people. What is not permitted is to count only a portion of the people because when the people do not stand as a whole both their physical and spiritual fates are vulnerable.\” (adapted from Meshekh Hochmah Bemidbar, Cooperman ed. pp. 21-22)

This Lithuanian rabbi reinterpreted the halachic debate concerning \”counting Jews\” as a metaphor for the problems facing his own community. He recognized its divided nature. Even in Lithuania, Jews were creating many little sub-communities to express their new found identities. Of one thing he was certain. He realized that if each of these little Jewish groups, formed to search out their own identity, saw themselves as separate entities, unwilling to stand with the whole, they would ultimately bring disaster on themselves and on the Jewish people. He felt that only by standing together, would the common Jewish destiny be achieved.

About This Commentary

This study piece is offered as a service of the United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva. It is prepared by Rabbi Mordechai (Mitchell) Silverstein, senior lecturer in  Talmud and Midrash at the Conservative Yeshiva.  He is a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.

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