This week, in the Beit Midrash of Midreshet HaRova, I was stopped by Ronit Weinberger who had a question on the parsha. Ronit noted that Parshat Bamidbar begins with Hashem telling Moshe (1:2) “Take a census of all the Jews, by their families, according to their father’s house, a numbering by names, all males according to their polls.” But then in chapter 2, the Torah repeats the numbers of the Jews by tribes. Ronit wanted to know why this is so. We can expand the question by noting that this command took place in the second month (Eeyar) of the second year since the Jews had come out of Egypt. This was approximately a month after the Mishkan (Tabernacle) was erected. Being that the Jews contributed a half-shekel coin for the Mishkan, Moshe obviously had a total of how many Jews there were (after all, how much could the population have changed in one month?) So why are the Jews being counted again, a month later? In addition, why were they ‘numbered by name’ and not via the Shekal, as was done previously?”
The question leads us to the obvious conclusion that the first census in chapter 1 was not taken for the purpose of getting a total number of Jews (whereas the second census seems to be about counting men eligible for war). As to why the Jews were counted in the first census and why by name, there are various opinions. One such opinion is that of Ramban (Nachmanides) who says that it was done for the purpose of having each Jew pass in front of two such holy people like Moshe and Aaron. The impact of seeing two such great men would certainly affect the Jews in a positive way and hopefully make them want to become more righteous individuals. At the same time, Moshe and Aaron would look at each Jew and give him a blessing, which cause Hashem’s Presence to rest on him and thus make him even more righteous.
Perhaps another reason why the Jews were counted by name can be gleaned from something else which receives a number and a name. In Tehillim it says (147:4) “Hashem counts the stars by number, to all of them He gives a name.” The same question asked regarding counting the Jews, can be asked regarding the stars. Why does Hashem have to count the stars when He already knows how many there are (after all, He created them)? And why does Hashem give the stars a name?
To understand this, we look to Ramchal’s (R. Moshe Chaim Luzzato, well-known Kabbalist and Jewish Philosopher) sefer “Derech Hashem–Path to G-d”. In Section 2 of that sefer, Ramchal writes (7:1) “We have already discussed how every physical phenomenon has its root in the spiritual realm. First, each thing is rooted in the spiritual realm in all the necessary ways and afterwards, it is committed more and more to the material until it finds itself in the form desired for it in the physical realm.” In other words, Ramchal is saying that everything that exists in this world emanates from something in the spiritual world. For example, a table in this world has some kind of counterpart in the spiritual world, which manifests itself as a table in this world. Ramchal continues ” It was for the sake of this process that the stars and planets were created. Through their movements and cycles, influences in the spiritual realm are transmitted and reflected to their physical counterparts, allowing things to exist in the material world in the physical form that was ordained for them. Regarding the stars, Hashem decided their number, positioning, and the levels of their various divisions, in order to put this aforementioned system of transmission into operation in the necessary and appropriate way. All things in the physical world are given the power to exist through influences transmitted to them via their respective stars.” Ramchal then writes (7:2) “There is another function that Hashem assigned to stars. Every event and situation in the material world is prepared and initiated on high and then is transmitted via the stars, finally appearing in the desired physical forms below.” This idea is supported by the Gemarra (Rosh HaShannah 12a) which says that before Hashem brought the Flood on the Earth, He took out two stars from the tail of the astrological sign of the lamb (Capricorn). Somehow, the removal of those stars enabled the Flood to come to the Earth. Finally, Ramchal writes (7:3) “Every human being is subjugated to this system and whatever happens to him is a result of this astrological influence.”
On the surface, this seems quite shocking. It sounds as if Ramchal is endorsing Astrology. Is Ramchal essentially telling us not to do anything until we check our horoscope? But in fact, Ramchal clearly states a bit further on in the chapter, that (7:4) “Actual organization of this system is not ascertainable through observation. Astrologers attempting to predict the future are very rarely able to do so accurately and what they do see is not seen clearly.” Ramchal gives various reasons for why astrologers cannot predict events through their analysis of the stars. First of all, even with the most sophisticated telescope, we can only see a minute fraction of the solar system and thus we are never getting the “full picture”. Secondly, even if the stars show something about to happen, Hashem can always “overrule” it and stop it from happening. Finally, if we could predict events based on the stars, our free-will would be diminished and that is against the basic foundation of this world.
So then what is Ramchal saying about stars? Simply that they do have a hand in Providence (i.e. what happens in this world) by preparing and transmitting events that occur. Thus, the stars are quite important. That importance is demonstrated by the fact that Hashem takes the time to count each star individually and give it a name. But at the same time, human beings can never really figure out, understand or even predict events based on the stars. This is especially true regarding events that affect the Jewish people because our Sages say (Gemarra Shabbat 156) “There is no constellation for Israel.” Whereas every other nation is under the influence of the stars, Jews are not. Hashem directly supervises the events in the lives of the Jewish people. Thus we can say that the reason why Hashem had the Jews counted now by name, was to show that the Jews play an important role in determining what happens in this world and that only the Jewish nation has individual supervision by Hashem. In other words, Hashem scrutinizes each Jew to determine what events will affect him in his life. The important role of the Jews and the fact that they have individual supervision, is hinted to by the fact that Hashem numbers us one by one, by name.
But that’s not all. This counting not only hints to the idea of general Providence (i.e. that Jews determine what events occur in the world) but it also implies something about individual Providence (i.e. why things happen to an individual). The verse says that each person was counted “according to his family”. Ramchal says that one factor that determines why things happen to a person, is the person’s lineage. Certain events will happen to a person based on who his forefathers were and/or who his descendents will be. In addition, the verse says they were counted according to their “polls”. The Hebrew word for “polls” is “gilgulotam”. The root of that word is “gilgul” which means re-incarnation. Ramchal says that another factor that determines why things happen to a person, is what that person did in his previous lives.
So this first census seems to be hinting to the theme of Providence and the role of the Jewish people in this world. The Jews (like the stars) are given a number and a name as a sign that they have a major hand in Providence–i.e. how this world is affected. The implied message here is that as long as Jews are righteous, G-d-loving people, the world becomes a more righteous, G-d-loving place.
And you don’t have to “wish upon a star” for that to come true.