The Purpose of the Census
In this week’s portion the Torah details the census that was taken of all males from the age of twenty and up after their departure from Egypt. Abarbanel questions the need for this census since one year earlier the same population was counted through each individual’s donation of a half-shekel towards the construction of the Tabernacle (Mishkan). Abarbanel is also puzzled by the fact that the count is exactly the same in both instances, an impossible result since there would have been a significant number of individuals who were nineteen years old at the time of the first census and would only be counted at the second census.
Regarding the first question he answers that at this point the nation would soon be entering the Land of Israel, which would have to be conquered militarily. Just as a king would take a careful census of his available troops before embarking on a military campaign, the Torah specifically states that Moshe counted “From twenty years of age and up, everyone who goes out to the legion in Israel.” The command to conduct the census was specifically given to Moshe alone, as he would be functioning like a king at the head of his army. This is indicated by the end of the above-mentioned verse which states, “You shall count them according to their legions.”
The Torah then goes on to designate a leader for each of the tribes, since they would have to know how many men would be under their command, as they would have to assume, as the Ramban emphasizes, that they could not rely on miracles, such as one man chasing a thousand of the enemy. Additionally, since there would be a division of the Land amongst the tribes, each leader had to know the population of his tribe in comparison to the others. Since this census was part of an upcoming military campaign which would ultimately result in the division of the Land, the mixed multitude of Egyptians that accompanied the Jews into the desert were excluded from the census since they would have no inheritance in the Land. Even though Abarbanel does not elaborate, perhaps we can assume as well that their questionable loyalty and commitment would preclude them from military service as well.
In answer to the second question, Abarbanel points out that the Torah makes it clear that the Levites were not part of the second census. At this point the Tabernacle had been completed and it was the Levites’ role to be involved in all the activities centered in the Tabernacle, including taking it down, transporting it and re-erecting it. Since the Levites would be excused from military service and would not have a specific portion in the Land of Israel, there was no need to count them in the second census. The first census, however, took place before the Levites were specifically designated for service in the Tabernacle, and since they also contributed a half-shekel to the Tabernacle they were counted along with all the other tribes. Thus, even though thousands of just-turned-twenty young men were added to the number of the second census, we have to subtract the approximately 22,000 Levites who were not counted in the second census.