This week’s parsha describes the first stage in counting the entire nation, as commanded to Moshe and Aharon in Ki Tisa, with its ultimate completion in next week’s parsha with the counting of the Leviim. Three questions: 1) Why is the nation counted now? 2) Why are the Leviim left out of this initial census? 3) As prescribed in Ki Tisa, each person counted needed to donate a half-shekel to the mishkan as a ‘ransom for his life so as to avoid bringing upon himself a ‘plague’ [death]’ – why would a shekel-less counting constitute a death sentence? We must first understand the context of this counting event: after Har Sinai, the tragedy with the golden calf and the completion of the mishkan, and immediately before the nation is ‘scheduled’ to travel into Eretz Yisrael (seeRaSHBaM and others), God tells Moshe and Aharon that it is time to count all the army-aged men of the nation; the Leviim are excluded from this census – but are to be counted later – and this opening scene closes with the outlining of the rules concerning the formation of nation when it travels (Leviim accompanying the aron in the middle, with the rest of the tribes flanking on all four sides). Whichever opinion you choose to agree with concerning the chronology of the event of the golden calf (i.e. before or after the mishkan), at this point in time both have occurred and therefore there are two ‘facts’ that the nation must contend with: a) after the erroneous sin, God told Moshe that He would send a messenger with the nation when they enter Eretz Yisrael, for He, Himself, will not be accompanying this infuriatingly stubborn nation (for their own good) (Shemot 33; 3), and b) a structure has been erected which, for all intents and purposes, relegates God’s presence to a specific location vis-à-vis the nation. The similarity between both these new realities is that God has in essence removed Himself from any overarching presence amongst the people themselves (although certainly still dwelling within the ‘camp’). And now they must be counted. In this week’s haftarah, Hoshea tells Bnei Yisrael that, “and the numbers of Bnei Yisrael will be like the sand of the sea, which cannot be measured or counted; and instead of [God] saying to them, ‘you are not My nation’, He will say to them, ‘[you are] sons of a living God’!” It would seem from this declaration that not being countable leads the people to a heightened Divine relationship while being numbered and measured renders the nation “not God’s”. This, along with the two realities mentioned above, expresses the true nature of this census: God is illustrating through His command to count the nation that they are now ‘on their own’, and that the enumerated soldiers will form an army to conquer their promised Land founded strictly upon their own leadership and military might. And this explains why a ‘ransoming’ half-shekel for the mishkanwas required from every counted person, because through the counting they are being removed from a personally involved God presence, separated from His Divine connection and in order to counter the (enforced) forsaking of God (a ‘deadly’ sin) they were required to contribute to, and therein maintain and affirm, a connection to the symbol which represented the ‘separated’, yet ever-present Godly existence in their midst – the mishkan. And why, immediately after this ‘transformation’, is the nation told that they will march surrounding the aron? Because it serves as a perfect illustration of their newly established relationship with God: while He must be found at their ‘center’, God will nonetheless remain distinct from them, screened by the encircling Leviim, the very tribe who will need their own, distinct census because theirs is for the exact opposite reason than that of the nation’s! Their counting will serve to incorporate them into God’s ‘army’ – ‘all who will come to serve in the army of performing the services of the ohel moed’’ (4; 23) – elevating them to an even higher level of Divine connection. And why does God state that the Leviim must divide the nation from the mishkan in the center, ‘so that there will not be an anger (‘ketzef’) on the nation (‘eidah’) of Israel’ – and the only other time this combination of ‘ketzef’ and ‘eidah’ is used is in Yehoshua (22; 20) speaking about when Achan had stolen from the God-apportioned spoils of Yericho, and having ‘violated the sacred booty, an anger struck the nation’. The mishkan remains in the nation’s center, but a closer, personal approach by anyone except the Leviim is prohibited. Shabbat Shalom.