Our Parsha, which opens Sefer BaMidbar, is focussed entirely on the census that was conducted within Am Yisrael prior to the anticipated entrance into Eretz Yisrael. This census follows hard on the heels of the original census taken of Bnai Yisrael at the time of the building of the Miskan, related in Parshat Ki Tisa. In fact only a period of several months separates the two. (I have taken it as a given that there were two separate censuses conducted. This is the position of Rashi (30:16) in Parshat Ki Tisa, and was adopted by other Rishonim and Achronim as well. For an interesting modern interpretation suggesting that in fact there was only a single census conducted, see Rav Elchana Samet, Iyunim b’Parshat HaShavua, pp 153-155.) As such, the two provide a window on the question of conducting censuses, an issue that has become relevant with the establishment of the State of Israel.
In Parshat Ki Tisa, the Torah tells us that the census should be conducted indirectly, through the giving of the Machazit HaShekel for every male over the age of twenty. In our Parsha, there is no mention of counting indirectly, and a simple reading of the passukim would seem to indicate that the counting was done directly. Rashi (1:2) immediately rejects this notion, telling us that the counting was done, indirectly, via the giving of the half shekel. The Ramban adopts this position as well. The Abarbanel clearly disputes this position, and claims that only the original census was carried out with the Machazit HaShekel, for the purpose of funding the building of the Mishkan. This is, however, a minority opinion, and the Rambam (Hilchot Tamidim U’Musafin 4:4) clearly establishes the Halacha according to the position of Rashi.
It is clear, however, that the technical aspect of how the census should be conducted is only one issue that needs to be considered in our discussion. The Gemara in Yoma (22b) tells us that the very act of conducting a census, even for the purpose of a mitzva, is forbidden. The reason for the prohibition, the gemara tells us, is that Hashem has promised that Bnai Yisrael will be blessed and grow until they are like the sands of the sea that can’t be measured. By conducting a census we are rejecting the bracha.
Rabbenu Bachaya Ibn Asher gives another reason, one that resonates with our understanding of the position of an individual vis a vis the community. Rabbenu Bachaya (Shemot 30:12) tells us that by counting individuals, we unduly highlight the individual as being separate from the community. As such, the individual is removed from the hashgacha of the group and subjected to greater scrutiny as an individual. This is of course reminiscent of the widely held explanation for the preference of tefila b’zibbur as opposed to individual prayer. In that situation we also see the benefits of the individual becoming part of the group and therefore being subject to Hashem’s hashgacha as a member of the community, rather than being judged on the basis of one’s personal merits.
In light of the above, one of the more difficult events in Tanach is the story of the ill-fated census that David HaMelech orders toward the end of his reign, as related in Shmuel II, perek 24. As a result of this census, Bnai Yisrael is struck by a plague during which 70,000 people die. The meforshim are all puzzled by the same question, namely, what was David thinking? The Ramban gives two answers, one in Shemot and the other in BaMidbar. In Shemot (30:12), the Ramban suggests that David misunderstood the halacha, and didn’t realize that the requirement of conducting a census indirectly was for all times, and not only for the original census conducted for the building of the Mishkan. Surprisingly, in our Parsha (1:2), the Ramban suggests that David’s sin was ordering a census for no good reason, and as such he was punished. (The apparent inconsistency in the Ramban’s explanations did not go unnoticed. See Rav Chavel’s footnotes on the Ramban in Shemot in both the Torat Chaim Chumash and the Mossad HaRav Kook edition of the Ramban).
What follows from the Ramban’s second explanation, is that the Gemara notwithstanding, a census can be taken for the purpose of a mitzva. It would appear that the prohibition alluded to in Yoma is only referring to a census taken directly. Thus, the position of the Rambam that we quoted above, that the census must be taken indirectly. Another limiting factor might be whether the census counts all of Am Yisrael or only a portion of the nation (the censuses in the Midbar were limited to males over twenty).
While it is clearly beyond the scope of this shiur to fully survey the different opinions as to if and how a census may be conducted in Israel today, it is worth noting that, amongst others, the Sridei Aish and Rav Shaul Yisraeli clearly permit such an undertaking. Rav Yisraeli sets down three conditions for taking a census. Firstly, it must be for a dvar mitzva (which is generally understood as providing the State with necessary data to guide public policy). Secondly, it must be done indirectly, a condition that is fulfilled by the use of questionnaires. Finally, it can not include the entire nation, which may not be a problem since the census does not include Jews in the diaspora.
Our survey would be incomplete without noting the position of the Ramban in Parshat Korach (16:21), which is also found in the Radak in Shmuel II, perek 24. The Ramban is troubled by the fact that nai Yisrael were punished so severely (70,000 dead in a three day period!) for what was essentially the sin of David HaMelech. In fact, the passukim in Shmuel II seem to indicate that Bnai Yisrael were being punished, and that Hashem was using David as a tool to affect that punishment (24:1). The Ramban explains that Bnai Yisrael were being punished for their indifference toward the mitzva of building the Beit HaMikdash. The Ramban goes as far as to suggest that despite the well known prohibition on David to build the Mikdash, this was only because David was attempting to build the Temple as an individual and not because he was acting in the name of all of Am Yisrael. Had Bnai Yisrael wished it, David’s individual shortcomings would have been overlooked and he would have been permitted to build the Mikdash as the representative of all of Am Yisrael (see our discussion of Rabbenu Bachaya above!). However, since Bnai Yisrael were disinterested in this mitzva, while they were more than involved in building their own homes, they deserved to be punished.
This past week we were zoche to celebrate the 37th anniversary of the reunification of Yerushalayim. While Yom Yerushalayim gives us a feel good opportunity to wave the flag, and some great photo-ops, can we honestly say that we are doing all we can to complete the rebuilding of Yerushalayim? When we, as nation, can answer that question in the affirmative, we will truly be zoche l’rot b’simchata.
Ken yehi ratzon.