It’s Not About the Numbers by Joel Krim


In Parashat Ki Tisa, Moshe is commanded to count Bnei Yisrael. While Bnei Yisrael were counted several times throughout their journey in the Midbar, the language used to describe this particular census is rather perplexing. The Torah states, “Ki Tisa Et Rosh Bnei Yisrael LiFkudeihem. . .” which means literally, “When you will raise the heads of Bnei Yisrael to assess their numbers . . .” (Shemot 30:12), not, as many translate, “When you count Bnei Yisrael according to their number.” What prompts this apparently strange and indirect language? Why does Hashem not command Moshe explicitly to count Bnei Yisrael?

Rav Berel Wein suggests that the command for each Jew to raise his head, be it literal or figurative, represents a feeling of pride and uniqueness. It is important to note that the census of Bnei Yisrael is not a numbers-dominated event—otherwise, Hashem would have commanded “Ki Tifkod Et Bnei Yisrael . . .” “When you will count Bnei Yisrael . . .” With a such a simple count, most Jews would perhaps feel that they were a minor part of the greater whole and therefore insignificant on the individual level.

However, “Ki Tisa Et Rosh . . .” commands that if one wishes to be counted as part of the Jewish people, he must so with a raised head—a feeling of honor. The purpose of this census was not to compile a population statistic for Hashem, as He would clearly know the number of people in the nation. Rather, it could be that this counting aimed to inspire each member of Bnei Yisrael and to underscore the importance of each person’s involvement in and commitment to the nation as a whole. This notion is critical and reveals an extremely significant truth about being part of Bnei Yisrael: being a Jew is not simply being born into the folds of the Jewish community; being a Jew and part of the Jewish people is a thing that requires commitment, personal endeavors, and consistent introspection for personal improvement.

The Mitzvah to count Bnei Yisrael extends beyond a Jew’s role in Bnei Yisrael to his or her feeling of self-worth. As is the case with every recorded census of Bnei Yisrael (with the exclusion of King David’s in Shmuel Bet), Bnei Yisrael are always counted indirectly—by sheep (as in the case with King Shaul in Shmuel Aleph), or half-Shekels, as with Ki Tisa. This manifests the idea that the count is not about the numbers. Instead, it’s clear that one of the census’ key goals is to highlight to each Jew his own value within the community—that he is not just a faceless number among many other numbers.

It is clear that each Jew must feel a sense of importance, both to himself and to the community as a whole. Such sentiments are integral both for the individual’s personal confidence and development, and for the success of the extended public. As Jews, each of us must feel, know, and be assured of how we are all critical to all of Bnei Yisrael, both in terms of ourselves and our commitment to the Jewish nation and religion. May we reach this point at which raise our heads to realize our inner potential and identify proudly as Jews.

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