I’ve never considered myself to be a numbers guy. I’m very good at simple math that I can do in my head, and I thrived on my elementary school multiplication tables. When I was little, I thought I was great at counting. When you’re a toddler, it’s pretty exciting when you can count past eleven. But even now, counting isn’t always so simple. People will ask me how many people were in shul on a particular day or how many were at a wedding, and I’ll have no idea what to tell them. At least at a sporting event, at the end of the game they’ll announce the crowd on hand. This would be an interesting innovation in synagogue life. “Good Morning, Congregation _______________ worshippers! Today’s “paid” attendance is 500! Tomorrow, the first 100 mispallelim through the door will get a free piece of shmaltz herring!”
Sometimes the count itself is important. We’ve been counting the days and weeks from Pesach until now during Sefiras HaOmer. We know the significance of counting every night. (Mazel tov to those of you who made this far! Maybe you can also get a free piece of herring…). But sometimes, the final count isn’t even important. Once you get a minyan, does anyone make a point to count how many people are davening after that? There is greater importance and significance is in the action of counting rather than the final tally.
The beginning of Parshas Bamidbar contains God’s commandment to Moshe and Aharon to take a census of the tribes of Israel. The simple meaning of this count of the nation is for military purposes. Rashi goes in a bit of a different direction here and comments here that because Bnai Yisrael were so dear to Him, Hashem counted them at various points in time. He counted them when they left Egypt, at the time of the cheit haeigel, to know how many of them remained in the broader nation. When God wanted to rest the Shechina, His presence upon them, He counted them. On the first of Nissan He counted them, and on the first of Iyar, when the Mishkan was built, He counted them, too. According to Rashi, it was because the nation of Israel was so close to the heart of Hashem that He counted them so many times. If something is truly dear to you, one will often times be invested heavily in it.
When I was growing up, my most prized of possessions were my toy cars. Hotwheels, Matchbox, Tonka, etc.: I would play with them for hours on the floor of my den. I’d line them up, divide them by specific make, model, and color, and I’d count them. They were my pride and joy. Although I grew out of that specific fad, I know grown adults who have hobbies, collections, and obsessions that seem to have taken over their entire lives and houses, at times, much to the chagrin of their spouses. Hashem’s hobby, His prized possession is Bnai Yisrael. But it begs the question: Since Bnai Yisrael holds this special place in the eyes of the Ribono Shel Olam, and Rashi explained that He counted them many times, why couldn’t He just tell Moshe the exact number of people that there were at all times? If you were to ask a serious collector about their specific collection, they would regale you with every intimate detail of how the traveled the globe, investing vast amounts of money just to get that hard to find baseball card or stamp or mug. If you ask any of these collectors how many items are in their collection, although they may not give you an exact figure, they can safely venture a hypothesis pertaining to that magic number. If something is so precious to you, you’ll know everything about it, you’ll know it’s ins and outs and have stories associated with it. If Bnai Yisrael are so special to God, shouldn’t He know how many people are there? One might answer that when one has such a vast collection, it’s hard to know your full inventory. If antique Winnebegos are your thing, you may have a better idea how many you truly possess than if you were to collect keychains or shotglasses. But we’re not talking about an amateur collector here. We’re talking about God Almighty. He’s not an amateur anything! He split the Yam Suf, He will bring people back from the dead, wrought tremendous miracles since the dawn of time and you’re telling me that He doesn’t know the exact number of souls among the Jewish people?!
Rav Soloveitchik notes that Hashem’s purpose is deeper than merely figuring out the amount of people in the nation fit for military service. Ever the Brisker, he maintained that there are “tzvei dinin,” that there are two purposes and goals of the census. The first goal is quantitative, and seeks to ascertain an accurate portrayal of how many people are in the nation, similar to a person taking stock of their assets in order to see what they have. Moshe is the leader, and as the leader, it is his job to make sure everyone is there. By Hashem merely telling Moshe the exact figure, it wouldn’t get Moshe anywhere. The second goal is qualitative, to count the people in order to get to know each individual. Moshe Rabbeinu was the Rebbe of Klal Yisrael. It’s more than a numbers game. It’s not enough for him to know the mere number of individuals in he was in charge of. He had to know each person individually, their backgrounds, and life experiences. Just as Rashi mentioned about how Hashem was so careful to count every single Jew, He charged Moshe, their leader in the wilderness, to get to know them just as intimately. Moshe knew that Hashem was in charge and that everything that he accomplished was only through the help of the Almighty, but when the nation sought counsel and when they complained, those complaints were directed to Moshe.
This idea stems from comments of the Ramban and is further expounded upon by Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe, in Alei Shur and his Shiurei Chumash. The effort that Moshe Rabbeinu exerted in counting and getting to personally know the individuals that made up the entire nation hammers home the fundamental significance of the individual. The census itself was meant to be positive experience. When the count was taking place, the pasuk says “se’u es rosh kol adas bnai yisrael, to lift the heads of the Bnai Yisrael.” The way that their heads would be lifted, so to speak, was for them to come before Moshe, Aharon, and the heads of the Shvatim, the greatest leaders of the generation. These leaders would know them, and make a note of them. Rav Wolbe continues that every person provides a unique combination of strengths and circumstances that distinguish them from anyone else that came before or will come after. This individual was born to specific parents, lives in a certain era, and has certain talents given to them in order to fulfill their divine mission. If a person is not aware of their own importance, one cannot begin their journey in their service of God. But if their leader is not aware of the traits of their followers, or who is even part of their flock, it’s just as alarming. Moshe would collect their half shekel in accordance with the message from God to count the nation, and through this process he would meet and greet every person, see their particular strengths and weaknesses, and go to bat for them. He was their rebbe, and they were his talmidim.
Just as this process was meant to imbue the count with a sense of deeper meaning, may we merit to find the hidden, significant meaning in all that we do.