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Do I Really Need This?

Bamidbar (Numbers 1:1-4:20 )

by Rabbi Noson Weisz

God spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the tent of Meeting, on the first of the second month, in the second year after their exodus from the land of Egypt saying, "Take a census of the entire assembly of the Children of Israel according to their families, according to their fathers' household, by number of the males, according to their headcount." (Numbers, 1:1-2)

Rashi explains that whenever God requests a census, His purpose is not determination but demonstration. He does not request the census because He is interested in knowing the count, He requests it to show His affection for the Jewish people.

The census in our Torah portion is actually the third census God ordered in the short two years that had elapsed from the Exodus. He requested a census when they left Egypt (Exodus 12) to establish the size of his flock. When some of the congregation fell victim to the sin of the golden calf He requested a second census (Exodus 32) to determine the number of missing.

The impetus behind this latest census was the construction of the Tabernacle. Its completion initiated the 800-year long historic era of the dwelling of the Shechina, Divine Presence in the Jewish camp, which ended with the destruction of the First Temple by the Babylonians.

God called this particular census to determine not only the number but also the identity of the Jewish people on whom His Presence would rest. Unlike those conducted previously, this one was by tribe, family and name.

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If we examine the argument behind Rashi's explanation, his reasoning seems to have proceeded along the following lines:

As God is omniscient and therefore knows everything by definition, He certainly knew the numbers of the Jewish people without any census. As the purpose of the census could not have been the discovery of the information obtained, the census must have been undertaken by God to send Israel a message of His love.

The census emerges as the method God selected to correct a misapprehension of his role among the Jewish people.

By requesting what everyone understood to be superfluous information, God was emphasizing that every Jewish individual was precious in His eyes, and every single individual was an equally important factor in His decision to establish His Presence in the Jewish camp.

If we examine this theory on a deeper level, the census emerges as the method God selected to correct a very likely misapprehension in the human approach to the establishment of a working relation with God, a misapprehension under which many of us still labor.

Our relationship with God is characterized under two headings:

  1. On the one hand God is described as our Father. Thus Moses declares in God's name, My firstborn son is Israel (Exodus 4:22), and declaims Is He not your Father... (Deut. 32:6).



  2. On the other hand we refer to God as the King in every blessing that we recite. According to our rabbis the very first commandment of the Ten Commandments; I am the Lord your God (Exodus 20:,2) obligates us to accept God as our absolute monarch.

At best, a superficial understanding of this two-faceted connection would allocate these two aspects of the Divine-human bond into separate areas. The aspect of King would be descriptive of God's interaction with the Jewish people as a whole, whereas the aspect of Father would be descriptive of the role of Divine Providence which gives every individual separate guidance and scrutiny.

I say at best, because it is possible to totally misinterpret the description of God as the Father of Israel and to understand it in the spirit of the maxim that describes George Washington as the father of his country.

The fact that George Washington is the father of his country implies nothing whatever about his relationship with Americans, either viewed individually or as a collective, of whatever generation, including his own. It merely serves to identify him as America's founder, with the added implication that he was a founder who really took the establishment of a free and independent America to heart. He was not simply a victorious general, a popular war hero who served as his nation's first president, he was an idealist who really believed in the importance of establishing a nation founded on the principles enshrined in the U.S. Constitution. In the pantheon of Judaism this "George Washington" niche belongs to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, not to God.

God is described as the Father of Israel in a genuine paternal sense. In His treatment of Israel God fully carried out all the functions of a conscientious parent to the letter. He worried about Israel's upbringing during the Egyptian exile, He instructed and educated the Jewish nation personally through the meeting at Sinai, and He provided for its future by bringing it into the Promised Land.

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The dual description of God as Israel's King and Father is actually meant to convey a profound thought. In the affairs of human beings the focus of the ruler and the focus of the parent are often mutually exclusive. The ruler's focus is the public welfare while the parent's focus is on the individual welfare of the child.

A simple illustration of the dichotomy that results from this difference in focus is provided by the familiar phenomenon of reverse discrimination:

As a society we have an urgent need to advance minorities.

As a society we have what many consider to be an urgent need to advance minorities. The failure to do so immediately and fast intensifies the already powerful perception of unfair discrimination that is felt by these minorities and can easily lead to the sort of social disharmony and unrest that we recently witnessed in Cincinnati. Seen from the standpoint of public policy, reverse discrimination is an impeccable social strategy.

On the other hand, from an individual standpoint it is highly unfair. The less competent and deserving person ends up with the coveted place in the university or the better job simply because he or she is a member of a certain minority. Individuals belonging to what is considered the majority are hampered unfairly in their efforts at climbing the ladder of personal advancement and social success. As a responsible ruler, one would certainly advocate the implementation of reverse discrimination. As a parent of a majority child, one would certainly oppose it.

It would, therefore, seem at first glance that the areas of activity of God the King and God the Father would have to be entirely separate. Thus, God the King would set the overall social policy. God the Father would do His best to maximize the possibilities of each individual within the areas where his individual interest does not conflict with the proper pursuit of wise social policy. Where they must conflict, however, God the Father would yield to the primacy of God the King.

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It is this misapprehension that the census of our Torah portion comes to correct. In symbolic terms, the resting of the Divine Presence on the completed Tabernacle parallels the phenomenon of the human monarch formally assuming his throne in his newly built palace. The message of the census is that unlike human rulers who assume office, God assumes His throne not only over the Jewish collective, but over every single Jewish individual. The instructions for the census emphasize that God is looking beyond tribes and beyond families down to the level of individual names.

The census amounts to a Divine undertaking to ensure that the individual will never get lost in the shuffle of the common good, nor will the common good be allowed to suffer to promote the welfare of individuals. God will run the world and Israel in a way that there will never be any conflict. He isn't wearing two hats, one Father and a second, King, but is combining and blending both functions under a single umbrella. He is the Father-King.

This may be a beautiful thought but it needs to be brought down to earth. The key to appreciation is to be found in the distinction between needs and desires.

The duty of a parent is to worry about the needs of his child. In fact his duty often involves the suppression of the child's desires.

Take, for example, the need for a livelihood. Everyone has to be equipped to fend for himself in this world and it is generally acknowledged that part of a parent's obligation is to equip his child with the means of earning a livelihood. Suppose the child wants to be a doctor with all his heart. The parent considers his child's I.Q., his poor grades in biology, his inability to handle high-pressure situations and comes to the conclusion that in all probability his child does not have what it takes to make it through medical school.

On the other hand, the parent feels that he would make an excellent accountant, owing to proven mathematical ability. A responsible parent will do all that he can to get his child to abandon his dreams of a medical career and settle for being an accountant. It is true that he is reducing his happiness by denying his child's heart, but his duty is to worry about providing for his needs.

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In contrast, the duty of the ruler is to worry about the satisfaction of desires. People consider him successful only if through his rule they manage to obtain more of what they want out of life. If he worries about providing what he considers to be the people's needs and ignores their wants, he is likely to find himself deposed and out of a job. He may even be correct in his assessment of what his people need, it would still make no difference. He was elected to maximize desires and when he focuses on needs instead, he is neglecting his mission. Most of us have little patience for paternalistic legislation or leadership and consider it an unjustified infringement on our freedom to decide freely what is the best for us.

In practice needs and wants often become confused and rulers and parents consequently often lose their way.

While this is crystal clear in theory, in practice needs and wants often become confused and rulers and parents consequently often lose their way. The reason for the confusion is very simple. From a secular standpoint it is next to impossible to distinguish between needs and wants except in very clearly defined cases such as the one referred to above. The more advanced the society, the more blurred does the line between needs and wants become. Who is to say whether the desire to own a car is a need or a want? What about the need to stay in fashion? What about the need for a vacation?

God does not have this problem. He knows exactly what people need. He designed and built each person individually and knows exactly why He sent each one down to the world. According to Jewish thought each soul that was sent down to the world was sent here to perfect himself by contending victoriously with his evil impulse. As far as God is concerned, each person needs to have what he requires to conduct his own particular battle and to reach his own particular perfection.

A person's needs are initially in God's hands. He defines them and therefore He can supply them. Indeed, He must supply them. It would be absurd to go to the trouble of sending a person down to the world to perfect himself and then fail to supply him with the wherewithal to do his job properly. There would be absolutely no excuse for an Omnipotent God to adopt such a bizarre course of behavior. On the other hand, the only way to perfection is along the highway of free will. God can and does supply everyone with the wherewithal to reach perfection, but what everyone does with this equipment is not in His control.

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A person's wants are much more complex than his needs. Since all people have free will and they themselves choose what they want, the determination of these wants are not in God's hands at all.

Now God does not need to be elected, and theoretically could have assumed the mantle of kingship without human consent. But He did not choose to do so. For the kingship belongs to God, and He rules the nations. (Psalms 22:29)

Says the Gaon of Vilna: "A king is chosen by consent; someone who rules by force may be a ruler but he is not a king. Over Israel God is king because they accepted His rule willingly on Mt. Sinai. Over the nations He merely rules as they never accepted His authority voluntarily."

Thus like any other head of state that we are familiar with in the modern world God must rule by popular consent. But this means He must provide what the population wants or He will be deposed. How can God possibly undertake to do this in light of the fact that He has no control whatever over what people desire?

The answer lies in the profundity of the Gaon's words and penetrates to the very heart of Judaism. When the Jewish people chose God as their King they did not pick Him out as the candidate best suited to deliver what they wanted. They picked Him absolutely because He could best tell them what they really wanted.

The difference between needs and desires arises out of the confusion between the two ideas "what I want" and "what is the best for me." In theory, every thinking person wants what is the best for him. But how can anyone ever be sure about what exactly is the best for him? You need to be omniscient to know the answer.

Human beings are not omniscient. Since they have no way of knowing what is the best for them they end up choosing what they want. What is best is an unknown but what is wanted is crystal clear. The maximum human beings can aspire to on their own is to avoid what is clearly harmful. To get what is best you have to trust God.

The maximum human beings can aspire to on their own is to avoid what is clearly harmful.

When the Jewish people elected God as their leader they, in affect, said to Him. "We know that you know exactly what we need. If we possessed Your omniscience, the ever-present confusion between our needs and our wants would instantly vanish. As we are not omniscient like You, we are willing to entrust our lives to you. We are sure that when we follow Your rule we will end up with what we really want."

The Talmud tells us (Sabbath 88a) that when God offered Israel the Torah they expressed their acceptance with the words "we shall do and then we shall understand." This statement encapsulates in a nutshell all the ideas discussed in this essay. The only way for human beings to equate their wants with their needs, and to truly achieve what is the best for themselves is through Divine revelation. Without the aid of such revelation, this knowledge is impossible to obtain by definition.

By accepting God as their King in the knowledge that He would only assume the office wearing the combined hats of Father-King, the Jewish people put themselves in a situation where their wants and their needs would assume a perfect synthesis.

We always read Parshat Bamidbar immediately before Shevuot, the anniversary of the meeting at Sinai, the day that we accepted God's Torah with the words "we will do and then we shall understand." The census of our Torah portion is the annual reminder of the wisdom of our choice.

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