Preparing for Battle
Sefer Bemidbar, so-called because its narratives take place in the desolate wilderness stretching from Mt. Sinai until the southern reaches of the Negev, begins with a census of the people of Israel. It has been more than a year since they have left the "iron furnace" of oppression that forged them in Egypt, but scarcely a month since they have lovingly dedicated the Mishkan or Tent of Meeting. Since arriving at the wilderness of Sinai in the "third month" after the Exodus and soon thereafter receiving the Torah in the aftermath of God's fiery descent upon the smoking summit of one of its peaks, they have patiently remained encamped at the base of the holy mountain.
In the meantime, the people have been busy. God has given them many laws and teachings, and they in turn have undertaken and successfully completed the building of the portable shrine, or Mishkan. They had left Egypt as a disorganized and unruly multitude, laden down with great bleating flocks of sheep, goats and cattle, unexpected gifts of gold and silver from their humbled overlords, and with their meager worldly possessions borne upon their shoulders. But now, they stand ready to begin the long-awaited journey towards the Promised Land, just as God had indicated to them when He addressed Moshe and invested him with authority, as the liberation had dawned:
I have also established My covenant with them to give them the land of Canaan, the land of their sojournings in which they had dwelt. I have also heard the outcry of the people of Israel who are worked hard by the Egyptians, and I have remembered My covenant. Therefore, say to the people of Israel that I am God, and that I will take you out of the oppressiveness of Egypt and save you from their labors, I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great judgements. I will take you as My people and I will be your God and you shall know that I am God your Lord who takes you out of the oppressiveness of Egypt. I WILL BRING YOU TO THE LAND THAT I PLEDGED TO GIVE TO AVRAHAM, YITZCHAK AND YA'ACOV, AND I WILL GIVE IT TO YOU AS YOUR HERITAGE, I AM GOD (Shemot 6:4-8).
THE CENSUS – RAMBAN'S INTERPRETATION
In preparation for that journey, the people are counted, and here we must adopt the explanation of the Ramban (13th century, Spain) as the most plausible:
The reason for ascertaining their number was similar to the practice of a ruling power that is about to embark on a war, for the people are now poised to enter the Land and to fight the Amorite kings who guarded its entrance from the east, as well all of the other kings on the other side of the Jordan…Moshe and the tribal princes had to know the number of fighting men…for the Torah does not rely on the miracle of one chasing a thousand. Thus, the text states 'all those who go out to war in Israel' because the count is for the sake of preparing the nation for battle. Also, they must know the number of people so that they can distribute the land that they conquer, for were it not for the incident of the Spies, they would have entered the land immediately (commentary to 1:45).
In other words, the journey to the land is introduced by a census for purely tactical reasons. The people's entry into Canaan will be accompanied by warfare, and in preparation for those inevitable battles it is necessary to know the strength of their forces, in order to arrange them accordingly. Remarkably, the Ramban posits a naturalistic unfolding of events, for as he puts it "the Torah does not rely on the miracle of one chasing a thousand". God will guide their forces and grant Israel a crushing victory over the Canaanites, but that triumph will unfold without overt and miraculous intervention. Though the Ramban no doubt reads our passage with the hindsight afforded by Sefer Yehoshua – in which the people of Israel do in fact battle the Canaanite confederacies according to expected and conventional rules of engagement – he detects the source for his thesis in the text itself. God, after all, does not enjoin an unqualified census of ALL of the people, men, women and children, but rather only the number of those who are "twenty years of age and above, all who go out in the armed forces of Israel…("kol yotzei tzavah beYisrael")" (Bemidbar 1:3). It is therefore only the adult males who constitute the armed forces that must be counted.
THE CENSUS – SEFORNO'S INTERPRETATION
In contrast to the Ramban, the Seforno (15th century, Italy) adopts a quite different approach. Concerning the census, he relates:
"Count the people" indicates that they were to be numbered in order to organize them to enter the land immediately, each under his tribal standard, without recourse to warfare. Rather, the tribes (inhabiting Canaan) would have evacuated before their arrival, as is fact some of them did. Thus, the text states that "on that day, his fortified cities will be forsaken as the woodlands and forests that they abandoned before the people of Israel, and the land will be desolate" (Yeshayahu/Isaiah 17:9). Perhaps the reference is to the clans of the Girgashite concerning whom our Sages declared that they arose and evacuated of their own accord (see Talmud Yerushalmi Shevi'it 6:1). It was only because of the debacle of the Spies that the seven nations (inhabiting Canaan) continued to be iniquitous for forty years, thus necessitating their destruction (commentary to 1:2).
For the Seforno, the census of the people was not to steel them for warfare but rather to arrange them according to their tribes so that they could enter the land in an organized fashion. Had no mishap occurred, then Israel would have crossed the river Yarden only to find unbolted gates and abandoned cities, for all of the inhabitants of Canaan would have fled before their arrival! Only because of the incident of the treacherous Spies (Bemidbar Chapters 13-14), in the aftermath of which that generation of Israel was denied by God immediate entry to the land and was instead condemned to wander in the wilderness for almost forty years and to perish, was warfare necessary.
Significantly, though, Seforno argues that the eventual need for warfare was as much a function of Canaanite indiscretion as of Israelite spiritual failure. The additional forty years that Israel wandered in the wilderness provided the inhabitants of Canaan with the extra time that was needed in order for them to seal a more ominous fate for themselves. By continuing to practice their abominable and immoral rites during the forty years that Israel was mired in the desolate badlands, the Canaanites filled their measure of indiscretion and thus precipitated a harsher end: instead of the opportunity for voluntary evacuation that had previously been theirs, they would have to engage Israel in battle and suffer the tragedy of defeat.
Though the Seforno provides a thematically compelling reading, there are a number of textual hurdles that he must overcome in order to do so. Presumably, for Seforno the gender and age limit of those counted, namely males twenty years and above, was not a function of their fitness for warfare but rather of their status as enfranchised adults with associated claim to a plot of earth in the new land. As for the expression "all who go out in the armed forces of Israel ("kol yotzei tzavah beYisrael")" that introduces the census, the Seforno must understand the term "tzavah" in its broader meaning of "large assembly" or "gathering". Significantly, this is a reading to which Ramban himself admits, for in his examination of references that use the term in a decidedly non-military sense, he explains it to refer to:
All those that go out to gather in the assembly, for the young lads do not congregate among the people. All gatherings of the people are referred to as "tzavah," as the following verses indicate: "This concerns the Leviim, from the age of twenty five they will come to be assembled (litzvo tzavah) in the service of the Tent of Meeting" (Bemidbar 8:24); "He fashioned the laver and its base out of bronze, using the mirrors of the women who assembled (hatzovot asher tzavu) at the opening of the Tent of Meeting" (Shemot 38:8); and similarly "the host of heaven (tzevah hashamayim) (Devarim 4:19)"
More difficult for the Seforno are the scattered early references that seem to imply the need for warfare against the Canaanites, even before the episode of the Spies. Thus, God tells the people immediately after the revelation at Sinai that they must hearken to the words of His messenger who will ease their entry into the land, for then "I will overwhelm your enemies and bring grief to your foes" (Shemot 23:22). Also difficult are the initial references that spell out Canaanite iniquity and their consequent forfeiture of title to the land due to abominable practices: "Observe My statutes and laws and perform them, so that the land into which I bring you to dwell does not spew you out. Do not follow the statutes of the nations that I drive out before you, for they did all of these things and I was disgusted with them. Therefore I said to you that you would inherit their land…" (VaYikra 20:22-24).
Fortunately for Seforno, the above references and the others like them are ambiguous enough to allow room for his interpretation. God's promise to overwhelm Israel's foes and bring them grief may mean warfare, but it also may simply mean forcing them to flee. The evil Canaanite practices that loosened their grip on the land need not have necessarily precipitated their bloody defeat but only their voluntary removal from the land in the face of superior Israelite power.
PHILOSOPHICAL DIFFICULTIES AND RESOLVING THE SEFORNO'S READING
Of course, textual issues notwithstanding, the more pressing problem with the Seforno is philosophical. While the opinion of the Ramban, a rationalist uncharacteristically well-grounded in the mystical tradition, is reasonable, the position of the Seforno seems untenable. How could it be that the Torah – so otherwise sensitive to the critical need for the concrete acts of the human being in the unfolding of God's plan – suggest that Israel need not have made any military preparations whatsoever in their march towards the land? Didn't Moshe himself bid Yehoshua to raise an army in the counterattack against Amalek that took place as the people journeyed towards Sinai (see Shemot 17:8-16)? Even if we posit that the battle was in the end decided by the miraculous raising of Moshe's hands (though the Sages in Mishna Rosh HaShana 3:8 were loathe to read the text so literally), an Israelite force was still assembled, presumably armed, and had to engage the Amalekites in combat!
Perhaps, then, it is preferable to regard the interpretation of the Seforno as offering us insight into a prophetic possibility embedded in the Torah's narrative rather than a serious expression of realpolitik. In other words, when God tells Moshe to carry out a census that is to include all adult males above the age of twenty, "kol yotzei tzavah beYisrael," He allows for multiple readings of His command. If the people merit it, then the counting will only have to serve as a means of later parceling out the territory of Canaan, for the land will be conquered without a proverbial shot being fired. But if not, then in fact the census will have been instrumental in providing the necessary information to raise an army for battle, for Israel will have to engage the Canaanites in warfare in order to secure a place in the land. But insofar as what the people of Israel actually HEAR and UNDERSTAND when informed of God's command, it cannot be anything but what the Ramban suggested above: "The reason for ascertaining their number was similar to the practice of a ruling power that is about to embark on a war, for the people are now poised to enter the Land and to fight the Amorite kings who guarded its entrance from the east, as well all of the other kings on the other side of the Jordan…Moshe and the tribal princes had to know the number of fighting men…FOR THE TORAH DOES NOT RELY UPON THE MIRACLE OF ONE CHASING A THOUSAND. Thus, the text states 'all those who go out to war in Israel' because the count is for the sake of preparing the nation for battle…"(commentary to 1:45).
This week, we commemorate Yom Yerushalayim, the day on which Jerusalem was liberated by the Israel Defense Forces during the Six day War of 1967. Many Jews did and still do have difficulty with the notion that human initiative may be required for the securing of Divine intervention that is often concealed and covert, preferring to believe that with sufficient merit, overt and obvious miracles will be forthcoming. The Ramban, however, his interpretation clearly anchored in the Torah's text and in the Sages' tradition, teaches us otherwise. Then, as now, the laws of nature and human history that God introduced at the moment of creation, operate in accordance with a rather predictable framework, and it is only within that framework that God does surely act to overpower destiny and to transform fate.
Victory is due to God, but He will not bestow it in the absence of concrete human attempts to secure it on the battlefield. Though we pray to one day see the fulfillment of Seforno's audacious interpretation, in the meantime we must hold fast to the reading of the Ramban: prepare for battle, but never lose sight of God's decisive role in deciding the outcome.