The Book of Bamidbar — "In the desert" — begins with G-d commanding Moshe to take a census of all men over age twenty — old enough for service. The count reveals just over 600,000. The levi'im are counted separately later because their service will be unique. They will be responsible for transporting the Mishkan and its furnishings and assembling them when the nation encamps. The 12 Tribes of Israel, each with its banner, are arranged around the Mishkan in four sections: east, south, west and north. Since Levi is singled out, the tribe of Yosef is split into two tribes, Efraim and Menashe, so there will be four groups of three. When the nation travels, they march in a formation similar to the way they camp. A formal transfer is made between the first-born and the levi'im, whereby the levi'im take over the role the first-born would have had serving in the Mishkan if not for the sin of the golden calf. The transfer is made using all the 22,000 surveyed levi'im from one month old and up. Only levi'im between 30 and 50 will work in the Mishkan. The remaining first-born sons are redeemed with silver, similar to the way we redeem our first-born today. The sons of Levi are divided into three main families, Gershon, Kehat and Merari (besides the kohanim — the special division from Kehat's family). The family of Kehat carried the menorah, the table, the altar and the holy ark. Because of their utmost sanctity, the ark and the altar are covered only by Aharon and his sons, before the levi'im prepare them for travel.
“Take a census of the entire assembly of the Children of Israel” (1:2)
One of my more interesting experiences was a brief trip across the Jordan River to the Hashemite kingdom of Jordan.
This was occasioned not by a great love of tourism but because I wanted to renew my visa. It was not uncommon to spend an entire day in the hallowed cloisters of the Israeli Ministry of the Interior to perform such a feat. In fact, it’s possible to review great swaths of the Babylonian Talmud courtesy of the waiting room of the Ministry of the Interior. There was even a rumor that a cobweb was once seen growing between the wall and the head of someone who was sitting awaiting his turn.
So on a trip to the north of Eretz Yisrael, I attempted to renew my visa in a different and hopefully more time-efficient way. Just outside of Beit Shean, the King Abdullah Bridge links Israel and Jordan. To cut a long and quite interesting story short, I presented myself at the border there and after a short bus ride found myself on the other side of the Jordanin the midst of a very foreign culture. Had I thought about it before, I would probably have made some attempt to conceal the more obvious signs of my Jewishness, but there I was clad in a dark blue suit and a fedora, looking about as Arabic as a cheese blintz.
As I entered the immigration building on the Jordanian side of the river, something struck me immediately — something was missing. However, it took me a few minutes to register what it was.
There was no security.
Absolutely no security. None. Zero. Zilch. No metal detectors. No X-ray machines. It was like walking through a time-warp into the late fifties, when hijacking was something only done by pirates under sail in the southern seas, and the word “terrorist” had yet to enter the lexicon.
In spite of my eye-catching ethnic garb, no one searched me; no dog whetted its tongue nor sniffed its nose in my direction.
There was no inspection, quite simply, because they knew they had nothing to fear. When was the last time you read a news report of a phylactery-clad Jew detonating himself in downtown Amman?
Checking is a double-edged blade. A check can be for the good, or for the bad.
In this week’s Torah portion, G-d instructs Moshe to “take a census of the entire assembly…” The Hebrew idiom for taking a census is “to lift up the head”. This phrase has two possible connotations. Either it can mean exaltation and elevation, or, as the Torah says in connection with Pharaoh’s baker (Gen. 40:13, 19), it can mean that the head is lifted higher that the body with a rope in execution.
The result of scrutiny can go either way. Similarly at Rosh Hashana, the ‘head’ of the year, when G-d dissects our actions and thoughts, when He takes the yearly census of our mitzvot and negative actions and thoughts, He can “raise our heads” in one of two ways in this ultimate security check.