PARASHAS BAMIDBAR: A THOUGHT ON CENSUS-TAKING
שְׂ א֗ ּו אֶ ת ־רֹאשׁ֙ כָּל ־עֲד ַ֣ ת בְׂ נֵֵֽׁי־ יִשְׂ רָּ אֵֵׁ֔ ל לְׂ מִ שְׂ פְׂ חֹתָָּ֖ ם לְׂ בֵַׁ֣ית אֲבֹתָָּ֑ ם בְׂ מִ סְׂ פ ַ֣ר שֵׁ מֵ֔ ֹות כָּ ל־זָּכָָּ֖ר לְׂ גֻלְׂ גְֹׂלתֵָּֽ ם
מִ בֶֶּ֨ ן עֶ שְׂ רִִ֤ ים שָּ נָּהׁ֙ וָּמ ֵ֔ עְׂ לָּ ה כָּל ־יֹצֵֵׁ֥א צָּבָָּ֖א בְׂ יִשְׂ רָּ אֵָׁ֑ ל תִ פְׂ קְׂ דֵ֥ ּו אֹתָָּ֛ ם לְׂ צִ בְׂ אֹתָָּ֖ ם א תֵָּ֥ ה וְׂא הֲ רֵֹֽ ן
דוְׂאִ תְׂ כֶַ֣ם יִהְׂ יֵּ֔ו אִֵ֥ יש אִָ֖ יש ל מ טֶָ֑ ה אִָ֛ יש רֵֹ֥ אש לְׂ בֵׁ ית־ אֲבֹתָָּ֖ יו הֵֽ ּוא׃
Take a census of the entire community of B’nei Yisrael
according to their [immediate] families,
following their paternal line [i.e., extended families],
according to the names of each male,
taken by head count.
You and Aaron shall count them by their divisions, [counting] every male over twenty years old who is fit
for service. Associated with you shall be a man from each tribe, each one the head of his ancestral house.
Sefer Bamidbar opens with Hashem’s command to take a census of all Israelite men who will go to war.
The language of this command reminds the leaders – and us – that every human being lives concurrently
in numerous worlds, and, thus possesses multiple identities:
 From one perspective, he is a unique individual, symbolized by his face. [l’gulg’losam, i.e., his
 In addition, he possesses a societal image [shaimos = a name], as well as numerous corporate
identities, including being an integral part of:
 his immediate family [l’mishp’chosam];
 his extended family [l’veis avosam];
 his local community [shaivet, his tribe];
 his extended community [degel-machaneh], and, of course,
 he is a member of K’lal Yisrael.
This identity continues to extend to:
 the human race – we are all (genetically) B’nai Noach – and
 the biological world (Hashem created humanity on the sixth day together with the mammals).
The Torah reminds us that communal leaders must recognize and respect the reality of these concurrent
multiple identities. Hashem, therefore, required these leaders, when taking a census of military fighters
(kol yotz’ai tzava), consider all these aspects.
In warfare, military leaders are must allow for the expendability of a certain number of lives for the good
of the collective. The more troops, the more soldiers the army “can afford” to lose for the purpose of
attaining its military objectives. Precisely for this reason, Hashem directs the leadership to consider the
uniqueness of each individual soldier, as well as his significance in the various sub-communities to which
he belongs. The leaders must keep in mind that each soldier is so much more than a (potentially
expendable) member of a fighting force.
Furthermore, the Torah may be reminding us that we must recognize and respect our own multiple
identities. When making choices, in every situation, we must strive to determine which one of our
identities to assert and prioritize. At times, we may choose to commit to family; other times we must
focus exclusively on the needs of our local community, or the world Jewish community, etc., even
though we often must do so at the expense of our other personal and communal identities.
May Hashem help us make the best choice possible in every situation.