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We All Count

Bamidbar (Numbers 1:1-4:20 )

by Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis

With Parashas Bamidbar, we commence the fourth of the Five Books of Moses. This Book is also known as Sefer HaPekudim - the Book of Numbers - for God commanded that a census of the Jewish people be taken. One might ask what the purpose of that census may have been, especially since the Jewish nation had already been counted in the Book of Exodus, and surely, God knew our numbers without a physical census.

The Hebrew term for census-taking, s'u es rosh, literally means "lift up the head." Through this counting, God reminds us how precious we are to Him, that we are all part of His master plan, and because of that, we all count. Each and every one of us is endowed with a special purpose that only we can fulfill. That awareness lends meaning to our lives, for it gives us a tachlis (a God-given purpose) - a reason to lift up our heads and confront life's challenges with strength and dignity.


At the beginning of the parashah, the Torah mentions that, starting from the second year after the Exodus from Egypt, whenever the Jewish people traveled they were arranged in a specific formation. The 12 tribes were divided into four groups of three, with each tribe stationed in a specific location - north, south, east or west - each carrying its own flag that identified its group. One might ask, why didn't the tribes travel in this formation when they left Egypt?

A flag symbolizes one's nationality, and if each tribe had had its own flag from the time the people left Egypt, it could have splintered the nation. Indeed, history is replete with examples of people going to battle under the banner of their national flags. Therefore, our tribal flags were given to us only after we constructed the Tabernacle that stood in the center of the camp. The Tabernacle, the symbol of our love and commitment to Hashem and His Torah, unified us and molded us into one nation.

Once we were unified in our service of God, our individual flags would no longer be a source of conflict, but rather, they would galvanize us and forge us into one. This not only pertains to our ancient past, but it speaks to us in every generation. In families where parents are strong, loving, role models, sibling rivalry is neutralized, for the children are unified in their commitment to their mother and father. Similarly, Jews who truly love God and His people will subdue their individual predilections, for the sake of the greater good of Hashem and His nation. Thus, while every one of the 12 tribes had a unique mission, for the sake of Hashem they all unified around the Tabernacle, carried their flags, and fulfilled their unique mission as one nation. In our contemporary world, in which broken homes are so prevalent and our people are fragmented, we would do well to absorb this lesson.


God created all of us with eyes, noses, ears, etc., yet no two people look exactly alike. Similarly, no two souls are exactly alike. Every individual is custom made by Him and has a purpose that only he or she can fulfill. Therefore, he must carry his own flag, know his own identity, and thus fulfill his/her task. King David praises God Who counts the billions of stars and calls each and every one of them by name.[1] Our names are not merely names; they define us, imbue us with a sense of our past, charge us with purpose, and impart a legacy.

Now, let us consider for a moment: Since God is aware of each and every star and calls each one by name, He is most certainly aware of us and surely calls us by our names. He hears and knows the thoughts in our innermost hearts. He understands our hopes and aspirations, so we are never to despair; God, our heavenly Father, is guiding our lives, summoning us daily to fulfill our mission. We need only study His holy Torah and we will hear His voice and discover our flag and our own identity.


Let us consider some further insights regarding counting. As we explained, "S'u es rosh" literally mens "Lift up the head." When something is precious to us, we count it. The very fact that Hashem wanted us to be counted testifies to the love that He harbors for us, and that awareness is, in and of itself, uplifting. The first time Hashem mentioned the number of the Jewish people was when we departed from Egypt;[2] that was an awesome, uplifting experience, because it demonstrated our miraculous growth. From the 70 people who had descended to Egypt, we became millions strong, a phenomenal growth that could only be explained by God's miraculous intervention and love.

We were counted once again after the sin of the Golden Calf, when we felt despondent and worthless at the memory of that perfidious act. "Count them, lift their heads," Hashem commanded Moses, and this time, we were counted through the half-shekel that we were commanded to contribute for the Tabernacle.[3] The knowledge that God did not reject us, that we still counted, that we still had a share in the creation of the Tabernacle, imbued us with purpose. Our half-shekel served to remind us that we are all halves in the greater mosaic of God's plan.

In our parashah, the counting took place after the Tabernacle was completed. The counting was done in accordance with our families, our tribes, and our names. There are many ways to understand this. One explanation is that a person might think that since the Tabernacle had been completed, individual contributions of the half-shekel were no longer critical. He might think that the service would go on, regardless of new contributions or lack of them. The Torah comes to remind us, however, that our task is never over: The Tabernacle and the Jewish people are only as strong as their individual families, as their individual tribes, and as we, ourselves. We dare not lose sight of that knowledge.

Lastly, there was a head count once again through the half-shekel. From this we learn that while it is important for everyone to recognize his own strengths and ideals, he must always bear in mind that God gave him his gifts so that he might enhance his family, his tribe, his community, and fulfill the unique mission inherent in his name. However, because it is forbidden to literally do a head count of the Jewish people, they were counted once again by counting half-shekels.


Parashas Bamidbar is always read prior to the great festival of Shavuos, which commemorates the day that God gave us the Torah. And that in itself is instructive. Midbar can be defined as wilderness or desert; the word bamidbar means "in the Wilderness," teaching us that if we wish the Torah to impact on us and elevate us, we have to make ourselves like a desert. Even as a desert is barren, so too must we divest ourselves of all preconceived notions and allow the Torah to re-shape us. Even as in a desert there are no diversions, so we cannot allow anyone or anything to distract us from our Torah study. Even as in the Wilderness of Sinai everything was free, so we must make Torah study available to one and all.

The backdrop for the giving of the Torah is equally significant. The Torah was given at Mount Sinai, a lowly mountain, and while logic would dictate that it would have been more impressive had God proclaimed His words on a tall, majestic mountain, He nevertheless chose Sinai for His revelation, teaching us that a prerequisite for Torah study is humility. At Sinai, the people saw flames and clouds dripping water; flames symbolize fiery passion, while clouds dripping water are symbolic of clarity. The verses teach us that if we wish Torah to enter our hearts, we must study it and transmit it with fiery passion; we must tackle our studies with discipline and stay with them until we have full clarity. All this is a reminder that Torah study cannot be undertaken casually. It is our very life and the length of our days, and must be accorded the seriousness and respect it deserves.


1. Psalms 147:4.
2. Exodus 12:37.
3. Ibid. 30:12-15.

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