The main theme in Parshat Bamidbar seems to be about numbers or counting. Yet, when reading through the parsha, one picks up on another theme as well, namely that of war. The first reference to war appears in Hashem’s instruction to Moshe to count the Jews (1:3) “From age twenty and older, all those who go out to war you shall count”. Then, war comes up again in the next topic, which describes how the Jews camped. As each tribe is listed according to their position in the camp, the Torah says that they encamped according to their hosts. The Hebrew word for hosts is “Tzivaot”, whose root is the word “Tzavah–army”. So what is the connection between these two themes of war and counting?
When Hashem tells Moshe to count the Jews, He says (1:2) “Raise the heads of the whole congregation of Jews according to their families”. The phrase “raise the head” has two contradictory meanings. In Parshat Vayeshev, when Yosef was in jail and interpreted the dreams of Pharoah’s wine-steward and baker, Yosef used the same phrase of “raising head” to mean two very different things. For the wine-steward, the phrase “your head will be raised” meant that he would be reinstated to his former position. However, when Yosef told the baker that his head would also be “raised” Yosef meant that it would be raised off his body–i.e. he would be killed. So why does Hashem use this contradictory phrase when telling Moshe to count the Jews?
Speaking of contradiction, there are two contradictory opinions as to the reason behind counting the Jews now. Rashi says that Hashem’s desire to count the Jews came from a deep love that He had for them. When a person has something that he really loves, he gets pleasure from counting it again and again. Rashi adds that Hashem specifically had the Jews counted now so that He could rest His Presence among them. The Gemarra (Bava Kama 83a) notes that Hashem’s Presence will not rest among a group of Jews who number less than 22,000. Thus, the Jews were counted here to make sure that each tribe had at least that amount of people.
However, later in the parsha, Moshe is told (1:49) “But the tribe of Levi you shall not count among the Jews”. Daat Z’kanim M’Baalei HaTosfot says that Levi was purposely kept out of this census so that they would be excluded from the decree of death that would come upon whoever was numbered in this census, as the result of the Sin of the Spies. Thus, this counting seems to have had a negative connotation according to Daat Z’kanim, despite Rashi’s opinion that it was positive. In addition, we might note that Chazal say that when if people are counted directly (i.e. by being assigned numbers) that could invoke “Ayin Hara” which could result in harm to those people or in their losing their possessions. This would seem to put a negative connotation on this counting. If that’s the case, why does Rashi say that it was a result of Hashem’s love for the Jews?
Re: the theme of army, Kli Yakar points out that the only other use of the word “Tzivaot” is when referring to the “heavenly hosts”–i.e. the angels. As to what army it is that the angels belong to, Chazal say that angels have no identity of their own, they merely exist to do Hashem’s will. Their essence is the reflection of the mission with which Hashem has entrusted them. Thus, they have no ego because they have no sense of self since their will is Hashem’s will. When you think about it, soldiers are trained in a similar way. The first step in his basic training involves the soldier’s ego being broken down. The soldier is ordered around, yelled at, and made to feel subservient to his officers so that he will lose his sense of ego. His hair is cut just like everyone else’s, his clothing looks just like everyone else’s, so that he will feel he is a part of a bigger whole–i.e. his unit.
In many countries, the army is used as a vehicle for people to get what they want–free room and board, an education and the discipline that they need in their life. The army has also been used by parents as a means of dealing with rebellious children. There are even countries that put their prisoners into the army as a way for them to “pay their debt” to society. Throughout history, Jews were conscripted against their will into the army of their host country, because they were considered to be the “dregs of society”. While some soldiers are intelligent and hard-working, the army is not typically the place to go to find a country’s “cream of society”.
The one exception to this is the Jewish army. Soldiers in the Jewish army had to be extremely righteous individuals and were always Torah-scholars. In fact, before the Jewish army went out to war, the leaders called out (Devarim 20:8) “Who is the man who is afraid, let him return home”. R. Yose HaGlili says that this refers to someone who had reason to fear that he had sinned, he had to go home so that he would not endanger the rest of his unit because of his sin. In other words, the Jewish army’s success depended less on their strength and strategy, and more on whether or not the soldiers were righteous individuals.
The most fundamental attribute of a soldier is his ability to sacrifice. The person must go through difficult training, which often involves sacrificing a normal way of life. After the training is over, the real sacrifice begins as the soldier goes into battle, not knowing if he will ever return. This requires a strong belief in and love for his country.
Hashem refers to the Jews as His army. When he tells Moshe to count the Jews, Hashem says to “raise their heads”. The raising of their heads can be for good or bad. The factor that determines which one it will be is how righteous the Jews are. If they are righteous, they will become like angels who are conscripted into the army of Hashem, and the counting is positive. If they are not righteous, it may cause Ayin Hara to be invoked and thus Hashem may take away the gifts He gives them, possibly even the gift of life.
Parshat Bamidbar is almost always read in the week of Yom Yerushalayim, the day on which we celebrate the liberation of Yerushalayim in the Six Day war of 1967. Though we may not personally know the soldiers who fought in that war, it is obvious that they were all righteous individuals who sacrificed a great deal in order that we could live in and walk around the holy city of Yerushalayim. To those angels of 1967, we say “THANK YOU!”