This week’s Parashah contains one of the many instances of Hashem counting Bnei Yisrael. Rashi (BeMidbar 1:1 s.v. VaYedabeir BeMidbar Sinai BeEchad LaChodesh) explains that the reason that Hashem is counting Bnei Yisrael now is out of his love toward them. Similarly, Hashem counted them when they left Mitzrayim and after Cheit HaEigel. However, the counting in Parashat BeMidbar is unique in that it focuses on the individual Shevatim of Bnei Yisrael. Why does the Torah specifically here feel the need to be so exact in recognizing the different Shevatim?
The answer seems to be based on an idea in this week’s Haftarah. The Haftarah begins with the Navi Hoshei’a saying (2:1), “VeHayah Mispar Bnei Yisrael KeChol HaYam Asher Lo Yimad VeLo Yisafeir,” “Yet the number of Bnei Yisrael shall be like the sand of the sea, which cannot be measured nor counted.” However, within this wonderful prophecy, there seems to be a major contradiction. The Navi says that Bnei Yisrael will have a number, yet they are uncountable. How can they possibly be both?
The Gemara in Masechet Yoma (22b) explains that when we do the will of Hashem, we have a number, and when we do not do the will of Hashem, we cannot be counted. The Sefat Emet explains further that when we have a number, it means that we are connected to our base of our Avot, Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov, who total the number three. However, when we are not doing the will of Hashem, we are not connected to our roots, the Avot, and we therefore cannot be connected to any number. Our prime goal is to always be connected to our roots, and only then can we be counted. To further this point, the Mishnah in Pirkei Avot mandates that every person know where he comes from, where he is going, and where he will eventually be judged. In order to get anywhere in life, a person must know his purpose – one can know his purpose only by knowing where his roots are, knowing where he comes from – and only then can he internalize the means to get to where he is truly supposed to go.
Through this understanding of the Haftarah, one can begin to understand the significance of counting every male Jew (over the age of twenty) in Sefer BeMidbar. Rav Yaakov Kaminetsky explains that the Shevatim are counted separately because Bnei Yisrael need to understand that the Mishkan is the focal point of their lives. Before this idea was introduced by having the Shevatim camped surrounding the Mishkan in the center of the camp, the Jews had no unifying force, and, therefore, there was a fear that the Shevatim would branch out and lack unity. However, now that Bnei Yisrael have this notion internalized, each Sheivet can be counted separately with no fear of it separating from the rest.
This fits perfectly with our understanding of the Haftarah. We explained that Bnei Yisrael may be counted only when they are doing Hashem’s will because at such a time, they are connected to the roots of the Avot. Similarly, Bnei Yisrael could be counted as individual Shevatim in Sefer BeMidbar because at this time, they were rooted and unified through the Mishkan. All of Am Yisrael could look toward the center of its camp, to the place that symbolizes that Hashem dwells among Bnei Yisrael, among His unified nation.
Today, we Jews don’t have a Mishkan or a Beit HaMikdash. However, we still have a unifying focal point in our lives. Whether it be via the physical city of Yerushalayim or the metaphysical connection we have through the Torah, Jews all over the world have many connections, which are the essence of their lives. We, Am Yisrael, must always be cognizant of our roots and recognize that those roots require us to live lives of Bnei Torah. By recognizing our roles in this world as members of Am Yisrael, we can hopefully live lives that are deserving of the rebuilding of our ultimate connection, the Beit HaMikdash, BiMheira VeYameinu.