In this week’s Haftarah, the Navi Hoshea describes the multitude of Jews that will exist in the world as a result of Hashem’s blessing. Our people will increase to such an extent that they, as the Navi puts it, “Lo Yimad VeLo Yisafeir,” “Can neither be measured nor counted” (Hoshea 2:1). It is from this Pasuk that Rabi Elazar derives a prohibition against counting the Jewish people. The Meshech Chochmah wonders why Rabi Elazar derived this prohibition from this Pasuk in Neviim as opposed to using a source in the Torah? After all, in his Tefillah prior to his encounter with Eisav, Yaakov uses the very same phrase of “Lo Yisafeir.”
The Meshech Chochmah explains that Bnei Yisrael are compared to the stars in the sky, the sand on the seashore, and the dirt on the earth. Although one can certainly contemplate a distinction between the symbolisms of the stars as compared to the dirt, it is somewhat difficult to understand the symbolic difference between sand and dirt. The Meshech Chochmah proposes that dirt is the conglomerate of individual pieces of sand or dust in a single unit while sand is essentially many individual grains that remain separate and distinct.
Sand and dirt each represent a different philosophy with respect to the relationship of the Jewish people with the secular world. From Avraham’s time until the birth of Yaakov’s sons, the philosophies of spreading monotheism and conversion were dominant. All of mankind that walked the face of the earth was to bind together as one, as symbolized by the dirt, a combination of individual grains. This explains the promise of Hashem to Avraham in Parshat Lech Lecha, “VeSamti Et Zaracha KaAfar HaAretz,” “I will make your offspring as the dust of the earth” (Bereishit 13:16) as well as Hashem’s promise to Yaakov in Parashat VaYeitzei, “VeHayah Zaracha KaAfar HaAretz,” “Your offspring shall be as the dust of the earth” (28:14). Both of these promises are made prior to the birth of Yaakov’s sons and therefore incorporate the “dust” philosophy.
Once Yaakov’s sons were born, the philosophies of distinction and separation from the non-Jewish world, represented by sand, became dominant. No longer could Bnei Yisrael take the time to convert the pagan world as they had their own growing families to teach and guide in the belief in Hashem.
We can now better understand Yaakov’s Tefillah, “Hatzileini Na MiYad Achi MiYad Eisav,” “Rescue me, please, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Eisav” (32:12). Yaakov was asking Hashem to save his family from the non-Jewish world because Hashem had already promised that He would make Yaakov’s descendants “KeChol HaYam,” “Like the sand of the sea,” meaning that He would keep them separate, distinct, and safe from outside forces like Eisav. Yaakov prayed not only that Hashem save his family from physical harm from Eisav but also from the spiritual damage that could result from Bnei Yisrael’s association with him.
Bnei Yisrael are only referred to as “KeChol HaYam” in the sense that they must be separate from the non-Jewish world; however, not, separate from each other but are rather one unit unto themselves. The sand we refer to is “Chol HaYam,” “sand on the seashore.” The crashing waves represent the nations of the world and the Chol HaYam is the one unit of Bnei Yisrael that stands to defend itself.
The reason one must not count Beni Yisrael despite the fact that they are KeChol HaYam (individual grains) is to remind us that we are only individuals in that we do not bind with the nations of the world but within our own nation we are but one. Counting is prohibited because it gives the impression that we are not unified.
Now we can return to address our original question. The Pasuk in Hoshea is the most appropriate one to derive the prohibition against counting Bnei Yisrael for it is this Pasuk that includes that Bnei Yisrael “Lo Yimad,” meaning that they will not be able to be measured. Measuring involves separating an individual unit into separate sections. This certainly connotes a notion of de-unification. It is this Pasuk then that emphasizes the importance of Bnei Yisrael retaining its unity and identity whereas the Pasuk in Parashat VaYishlach does not convey the message as well because it does not have the integral phrase of “Lo Yimad.”