Bamidbar One: Counting the People

The fourth book of the Torah is called Bamidbar, which literally means in the desert. This is a far cry from the way that it is referred to in English – Numbers. The name comes from the first verse of this chapter. “The Lord spoke to Moses in the Sinai Desert, in the Tent of Meeting on the first day of the second month, in the second year after the exodus from the land of Egypt, saying (Numbers 1:1).” Most of the Torah takes place in the desert. Why, therefore, was this book the one given the title for it? I’m not sure why this book and not any of the others, but I do know that it was in the desert that the people of Israel went through the process of nation building for the first time. Not while we were in our own land, but while we were wandering, something that would reoccur thousands of years later. Modern Judaism was largely shaped in the Diaspora, and existed in its current form before we had a State of Israel, much like biblical Judaism existed in the desert and then was brought to the land. This parallel is striking to me, and I will strive to keep it in mind as I read.

God tells Moses to take a census of the people (and by that I mean the men of fighting age). Each tribe sends a representative, and we are given their names. We are told that they are the princes of the tribes, and they were the ones who counted the men of their respective tribes.

The breakdown:

Reuben – 46,500

Shimon – 59,300

Gad – 45,650

Judah – 74,600

Issachar – 54,400

Zebulun – 57,400

Joseph (Ephraim) – 40,500

Joseph (Menashe) – 32,200

Benjamin – 35,400

Dan – 62,700

Asher – 41,500

Naphtali – 53,400

Total – 603,550

Of the tribes, Judah clearly has the largest fighting force. Levi, however, is not counted at all. Nevertheless, even without him, the Israelites clearly have a large and formidable fighting force traveling with them through the desert. Why was Levi not counted though? “Only the tribe of Levi you shall not number, and you shall not reckon their sum among the children of Israel. But you shall appoint the Levites over the Tabernacle of the Testimony, over all its vessels and over all that belong to it; they shall carry the Tabernacle and they shall minister to it, and they shall encamp around the Tabernacle (Numbers 1:49-50).” I understand that the Levites were chosen for a special role, but it doesn’t seem fair to me that they should be exempt from military service as a result. This makes me think of modern Israel, where the ultra Orthodox haredim don’t serve in the army because they have an exemption in order to study. Why should some sacrifice, and others not? Is this how it has to be, or was the Torah ruling wrong?

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