Welcome to the book of Bemidbar, the story of the first wanderings in the desert of our wandering people. It’s a dark book with an unspoken black hole - the death of an entire generation. But more of this in the coming weeks.
In this parasha, we read of three different censuses. Creepy in that we know these adult men setting out for their promised land will instead die in the desert. But I really must leave this for future weeks.
I’d like to share some thought about the words used for counting people in a census:
שְׂאוּ אֶת־רֹאשׁ כָּל־עֲדַת בְּנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵל
Literally “lift up the heads of the whole community of Bnei Yisrael”
This wording takes me back to Bereishit where Joseph interprets the dreams of the Baker and Butler he meets in prison. To the Butler, Joseph says:
יִשָּׂא פַרְעֹה אֶת־רֹאשֶׁךָ וַהֲשִׁיבְךָ עַל־כַּנֶּךָ
“Pharoah will lift up your head, and restore you to your office”
But in grizzly wordplay to the baker:
יִשָּׂא פַרְעֹה אֶת־רֹאשְׁךָ מֵעָלֶיךָ
“Pharoah will lift your head off you!”
In other words, it לשאת את־ראש can mean restored to greatness, and it can mean decapitated. Perhaps it’s no accident that this wording is used when counting people for an army - you are not just counting them but counting on them - if they do the job right, glory is restored. If they don’t show up, there’s death. A census has the potential to cheapen the status of the individual human. Here it’s the opposite - each person is counted on, is important, and has a role.
I’ve heard several disappointing divrei Torah on this sedra which say that if you count people, you show that they count. I once sat listening to a rabbi deliver this sermon completely oblivious to the fact that he was telling 50% of the people in the room, the women, that they don’t count because women weren’t counted in the census. But many others weren’t counted too. The Leviim for example, had their own separate census. And people under the age of 20, or unable to bear arms were not counted.
So this was a count for a specific purpose - counting fighting men, and that’s OK. (If you want an example of really including the entire nation, look at the end of the Torah, Devarim 31, where the entire people are gathered - men, women, of all ages, from the most prominent in society, to the most marginal). Nevertheless, the words with which we started כָּל־עֲדַת בְּנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵל “the whole community of Bnei Yisrael” elide uncomfortably into arms-bearing men over 20.
So my bracha for us this week, is that כָּל really can be “all”. That we can work towards a world in which each of us really can lift up our head and be part of the greatness of our religion. If we aren’t able to meet this goal, Joseph’s words stand as a warning: “your head will be lifted off you!”