In this week’s parasha, Bamidbar, God once again gives order and purpose to the lives of the Jewish people. God takes a census of all the “men of war” – those men over 20 years old. The tribe of Levi is counted separately because it will be devoted to God’s service. God establishes the way in which the tribes will camp, in order around the Mishkan (the Tabernacle), with the Priests at the front and the Levites on the other sides, and then the other tribes beyond them on each side. God also describes the tasks that each tribe will have when moving the Mishkan.
The very first sentence of the parasha gives us an interesting summary and a key to the future of the Jewish people: “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 Children of Israel according to their families, according to their fathers’ household, by number of the names, every male according to their head count.’ “Let’s look at the sentence more closely.
“God spoke to Moses” – We know that, as with everything in the Torah, God is the author of all that occurs.
“in the Wilderness of Sinai” – The Wilderness (Bamidbar) is where we get the name of the parasha. The idea of a wilderness is that it is, well, wild. There is no order. Things are haphazard. You have no idea what to expect around the next tree or over the next hill. It can be overgrown, like a jungle, or barren, like a desert.
“in the Tent of Meeting” – Now that the Mishkan has been created, it is the place where humankind encounters God’s Glory. The Mishkan served this purpose while we were in the Wilderness and for many years before the construction of the Temple, at which time the Temple served this purpose.
“on the first of the second month” – Rashi explains that the Mishkan was erected on the first of Nisan, and the census was on the first of Iyar, one month later. In Jewish law, you establish a permanent home by living in the same place for a month. When the Mishkan was built, God marked the occasion with a census (Exodus 30:11). Thirty days later God established a home at the Mishkan and again marked the occasion with a census.
“in the second year after their exodus from the land of Egypt” – When the Children of Israel began the Exodus (Exodus 1:1), God also took a census, counting 70 who left Canaan and entered Egypt. Now that the ordeal of 210 years of slavery is over, God will again count His people.
“saying, ‘Take a census of the Children of Israel’ “ – What’s the first rule of a patrol hike? Keep everyone together. The patrol leader does a head-count every so often to make sure no one is lost. We count the things that are important to us. We would not want to lose anyone on a journey, and the Children of Israel were and are important to God.
“according to their families, according to their fathers’ household” – A person’s tribe was determined by the father’s family line. Since the work of the camp and attending to the Mishkan would be done by tribes, the census was to be by each man and his father.
“by number of the names, every male according to their head count.” – Although the count would result in large numbers of people, each person would be important. The people will only be successful if each person does his part, working together.
So, now we know that in the midst of the Wilderness, God organizes the Children of Israel, each of whom is important to the task, working with each other to build and transport the home of God’s Glory. This is an interesting story, but does it have anything to do with our modern world? Very much so!
Tonight and tomorrow we celebrate Yom Yerushlayim, the day in 1967 when the Israel Defense Forces re-entered the Old City of Jerusalem and opened it to Jews for the first time since 1948 when the Kingdom of Jordan had taken control of it. Jews had been excluded while it was under Jordanian rule. Now all faiths are welcome to visit their holy places in Jerusalem. Though 1967 may seem as far away as the Exodus, your grandparents remember it well. So, in our time we again rejoice at the site of the Temple, which took the place of the Tabernacle. And the census? The count is infinite, because now all the world’s people are welcome to see the site where God’s Glory rested.