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The Value of Each Individual

Bamidbar (Numbers 1:1-4:20 )

by Rabbi Yehonasan Gefen

The Torah Portion begins with a census of the Jewish people. Indeed, counting is such a significant aspect of the Book of Bamidbar that the Sages call it the Chumash HaPekudim (the book of the counts). Even the English term used for Bamidbar is the Book of Numbers. Bamidar goes through every single tribe, listing how many males above the age of 20 were in that tribe, and then at the end provides a final number: “These were all the counted ones of the Children of Israel, according to their fathers’ house, from twenty years of age and up, everyone who goes out to the army in Israel: All their counted ones were 603,5501.”

The Torah then moves onto the account of the Flags. There were four Camps, each with 3 tribes. The Torah lists which tribe was in each camp. For each tribe the Torah tells us the prince of the tribe and the number of people in that tribe, even though the Torah just listed these exact numbers in the previous chapter describing the census. The Torah then, again gives us the sum total of all the camps: “These are the counts of the Children of Israel according to their fathers’ house; all the counts of the camps according to their armies, 603,5502.”

We know that the Torah is extremely careful with its use of words, to the extent that, on occasion, important laws are derived from an extra letter. Why then, did the Torah deem it necessary to repeat the same numbers in two consecutive sections? The Midrash partly addresses this point, noting that the repeated counting indicates God’s love for the Jewish people. We are so precious to Him that He loves to count us again and again.

The Ramban gives a different explanation for the apparent redundancy. He notes that three weeks transpired from the time when the people were originally counted until the day that they actually set up the system of travelling with the flags. During those 21 days, miraculously, no one died from the entire nation; there were 603,550 people at the start of that period and they had the exact same 603,550 people three weeks later. This may not seem so newsworthy, but, according to actuarial tables, in 21 days, out of a population of over 600,000, it is inevitable that there will be deaths. As an example of this, Rabbi Yissachar Frand cites a statistic that every single day there are 100 military funerals in USA of veterans of past wars. Accordingly, the Ramban suggests that the reason the Torah repeated these numbers is to highlight the miracle that in 21 days nobody died3.

This explanation seems difficult: Numerous open miracles took place in the period between the Exodus from Egypt and entering the Land of Israel, so why does the Torah particularly emphasize this miracle, especially given the fact that it is a hidden miracle in that there was no obvious overturning of the laws of nature in the fact that nobody died for three weeks. Moreover, as mentioned, the Torah is usually very sparse with Its words, so now in order to allude to this miracle, why did the Torah repeat Itself in such a seemingly long-winded way?

Rabbi Leib Rotkin offers an insight on this question that he heard in the Yeshiva in Kletsk4. He writes that this miracle is so important because of a major principle of Judaism: Whoever preserves the life of a single Jew is considered as if he preserved the entire world. Life is so precious, that even saving one individual is like saving an entire world.

This concept is applied throughout Jewish law. For example, one must desecrate Shabbat to save a person’s life even if he there is a small chance he will survive, and even if he will only be able to live for a few more moments. As Rabbi Yissachar Frand puts it: “The Torah here is conveying to us how important Jewish life is by spending all these verses to tell us one thing: nobody died! Human life is so precious that this is a miracle that bears repeating repeatedly in an elaborate manner with redundant verbiage, as the Torah does in this Portion. Every life makes a difference. Every person makes a difference. Every day of living makes a difference.”

This lesson is extremely pertinent at this time. We have been bombarded with ever escalating numbers of people sick and dying from the corona virus, and it is easy to forget that behind each number is an individual human being who had a family. The message here is that we must strive to remember the lesson of the Ramban, and to not become immune when we hear of another tragedy. The following story demonstrates this point: It is well known that in the Gulf War, the Iraqis launched 39 scud missiles into Israel, and miraculously only one person was killed. This was clearly a great miracle, as in other areas, the such missiles killed numerous people. I once read that a relative of the single person killed decried the fact that there was a stress that ‘only’ one person died – that person was a human being who is made in the Image of God and is of priceless value. This drives home the importance of the value of every single human life.

  1. Bamidbar, 1:45-46.
  2. Bamidbar, 2:32.
  3. Heard from Rabbi Yissachar Frand.
  4. Heard from Rabbi Yissachar Frand.

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