"By Their Families, By Their Households"

  • Harav Yehuda Amital







“By Their Families, By Their Households”

Translated by Kaeren Fish



Sefer Bamidbar opens with a description of a census of Bnei Yisrael.  The question that arises from a reading of this description is why the Torah goes to the trouble of recording it.  Of what difference is it to us how many people Bnei Yisrael numbered while they were in the desert?


The Torah’s purpose would seem to be not the historical record, but rather an important educational message.  This is often characteristic of the Torah’s narrative, as seen most clearly throughout Sefer Bereishit, which appears to concern itself with the historical record of events in the lives of our forefathers, while its primary aim is in fact reflected in the proverb – “The actions of the forefathers are a sign for the children.”  Meaning, it is teaching us the proper manner of ethical and moral behavior through imitation of the actions of the forefathers. 


This being so, what is the message that the Torah is conveying via the description of the census of Bnei Yisrael?


In parashat Ki Tisa we discover that a census of Bnei Yisrael is to be undertaken not by counting the people themselves, but rather by counting the half-shekels which each individual “from twenty years and upwards” must bring.  The Torah warns that if Bnei Yisrael are not counted in this manner, there will be a plague upon the people.  I have explained elsewhere that the commandment of counting by means of the half-shekel in itself represents an important lesson.


As we know, every individual Jew has something in common with others and something which is unique.  On the one hand, every one of us is a human being, and thus similar to everyone around him.  On the other hand, each person has his or her own personality and characteristics, and as such is a whole world in his own right.  When we want to count things, the things that we are counting must have something in common (since there is no point in counting things aimlessly).  Thus, the census of Bnei Yisrael is carried out using a half-shekel, which expresses the message that only half of every person is the same as those around him.  In order to count a whole person, we need to “complete” the missing half, the half that is different, by means of another half-shekel that they too must bring.  Only when everyone brings a half-shekel can we count both aspects and thus “whole” people.


Military life demonstrates how a regular counting erases the unique personality of each individual.  In the army, every soldier has a personal number by means of which he is identified, since from the point of view of the army the soldier’s unique personality is of less significance: what matters is the fact that he is a soldier, one among many.  (Even in the army, though, a soldier is significant on the personal level and should not be treated as just a number.)


Le-havdil – in the Holocaust, too, the Nazis identified their prisoners by numbers, thereby showing that as far as they were concerned these were just “numbers” – not people, each with his own rich, unique, irreplaceable inner world. 


Thus far we have spoken about the census described in parashat Ki Tisa.  The question that arises is whether the census in our parasha was conducted in the same way.  Ramban maintains that here, too, half-shekels were given in order to carry out the census, but Ralbag disagrees, explaining that here there was a regular count of the people themselves.  How, then, according to Ralbag, was the half-shekel not necessary here?


The explanation would seem to lie in the Torah’s description of this census as being conducted “by their families, by their households.”  Although it is people who are being counted, this is not a simple numerical census that ignores the uniqueness of every individual.  Rather it is a count in which every person receives personal, individualized attention, in accordance with his special history and his personality – “by their families, by their households.”  So long as the census-takers are aware of the problematic nature of a census that is taken directly, and they address and solve the problem, there is no need for actual half-shekels; the people may be counted by name.


Thus, the message arising from the story of the census of Bnei Yisrael is that every person is a world unto himself.  God does not create people “industrially”; each has a different personality and different traits.  Scientists know today that no two natural phenomena are identical in every way.  Everything is special.


Some time ago I attended a bar-mitzva celebration for the twin sons of one of the yeshiva’s graduates.  That father told me that he had always thought that their education came from him, but he had discovered that this was not so.  He had educated them both in exactly the same way, in the same home, sent them to the same school, they had heard the same things and had done the same things – but now that they had reached the age of bar-mitzva it was clear that they were two completely different people.  Apparently, he concluded, not everything comes from the home and the environment; there are some things that are built into each person.  Every person is unique, and this fact should not be overlooked or blurred.


On the other hand, it must be emphasized that the opposite message is also significant.  “If I am not for myself, who is for me? And if I am for myself alone, then what am I?” In other words, a person is also built up by what is around him; he is not an island.  For example, I am certain that if I had grown up on a kibbutz belonging to the “Ha-shomer Ha-tza’ir” movement, I would not have become a Rosh Yeshiva.  Although each individual is unique, there is still part of him that is molded and influenced by his environment.


On Lag Ba-omer I spoke about people who believe that they possess the whole truth, and that anyone who doesn’t think the way they do is not Jewish, or not religious, or not Zionist.  We must take great care to avoid this approach, which does not recognize the uniqueness of every individual and the justification for his opinions and his existence.  Since every person is different, it is only through everyone together that a whole is formed.  The whole truth can never exist in one person or in one group.  This is what the Torah seeks to teach us through the census that is taken by means of the half-shekel, and it is for this reason that that Ralbag maintains that in our the census was taken “by their names,” with recognition of uniqueness, and hence the half-shekel was not necessary.


(This sicha was delivered on Shabbat parashat Bamidbar 5765 [2005].)