The Census: Where Everyone Counts
The opening command of this fourth book of the Torah, Bamidbar, is to take a census of the nation as an eidah, a community united by a common calling. The counting of individuals conveys that every individual personally ‘counts’ as an important member of the community, and that the communal mission may be accomplished only when each member devotes himself to it. The manner of counting was by donation of a half-shekel, and the total sum collected was used for the upkeep of the Sanctuary. The message in this mode of counting is that every Jew is counted and valued only on the basis of his commitment to the Torah; the census is taken in the service of the Sanctuary.
This eidah community of the Children of Israel is counted in their subgroups — according to their families, which in turn comprise their tribes. The tribes are called matot, literally branches, on account of their one common stem, and they are also called beit avot on account of the numerous families in each tribe.
This is the uniqueness of the Jewish nation: The nation as a whole is considered one house, the House of Israel, and its members are called the children of one man, the Children of Israel. Our myriads descend from one man — our forefather Yisrael. And although multitudinous and even diverse, not a single member is left without the impression of the same stamp, the stamp that bears throughout the ages our heritage of one mission and one destiny.
Amidst this fundamental unity, the counting also emphasizes the diversity of qualities unique to the tribes and families of Israel. This diversity is nurtured and preserved as much as is the unity of mission. Indeed, the unified mission can be accomplished only when diversity is embraced, and the special character traits, variety of professions and positions in life, are given their full expression, and passed on to the next generation. This is why the hundreds of thousands of members of the Children of Israel do not come to the nation as unorganized multitudes, but rather according to their families, according to their father’s heads (tribes), by name. The sum here is a sum only of its parts — each indispensible part with a name, a family and a tribe.
- Sources: Commentary, Bamidbar 1:2