Of the counting of people there seems to be no end! In our parashah, men of fighting age are individually counted first by their families, and then again by their position surrounding the Ohel Mo’ed — the Tent of Meeting or Tabernacle. Why, ask commentators throughout the ages, does God command all this counting? Why is it so important to list in detail and in various forms the 603,550 men age 20 and above, able to fight in the military?
Midrash Numbers Rabbah (4:2) provides one beautiful answer: “This may be illustrated by a parable. A man possessed ….a stock of fine pearls which he used to take up and count before taking [them] out [to market] and count on putting [them] back in their place [when he came home]. So, as it were, said the Holy One, blessed be God: … ‘You [Israel] are my children … therefore I count you at frequent intervals.’ God takes pleasure in the ‘children’ God brought into the world, and wants to make sure they are safe and sound, and so God counts them at frequent intervals, taking delight and comfort in seeing them and knowing that they are all safely there.
The message is touching because it assumes a God who loves and who cares about God’s people — each and every one of them. It speaks of a God who is close and involved in our lives, and who wants us to be safe and taken care of. It speaks of a God who values each individual, and of individuals who are each terribly valuable. The midrash speaks to the deep value and preciousness of human life — in this case to the lives of the Israelites, but by extension to all of human life.
For Ramban, living in the Middle Ages, the counting testifies to the miracle of Israel’s survival and increase. He says (on Numbers 1:45): “Perhaps it was to proclaim God’s mercy over them, for it was with [only] seventy people that their fathers went down into Egypt (see Deut. 10:22), and now they were as the sand of the sea, so many men [above] the age of twenty [not to mention the women and children.] After every epidemic and plague God counted them again in order that they should know that it is He that increases the nations; He wounds, and his hands make whole (Job 5:18).”
In these times when Israel, the country, and its people are being sorely tried, it is good to be reminded that each and every person is precious in the eyes of God, and should be precious in the eyes of human beings. And in these difficult times, when we pray daily for an end to violence in the land of Israel and an end to unprovoked violence against Jews in Europe, it is good to be reminded of the miracle of our survival throughout the ages, and to continue to pray to God to heal those who are no longer whole.
The publication and distribution of “A Taste of Torah” commentary have been made possible by a generous gift from Sam and Marilee Susi.