The Jewish People Cannot be Counted
In the Haftorah of our Parsha, it is written, “Yet the number of the Children of Israel will be like the sand of the sea, which can neither be measured nor counted” (Hosea 2:1), a verse that is difficult to understand. Today we can certainly count the Children of Israel, and besides, what is the meaning of the expression “like the sand of the sea,” which cannot be taken literally? In addition, in the desert the Children of Israel from 20 to 60 years of age were counted, which, moreover, leads us to ask why they were only counted starting from the age of 20 (Numbers 1:3) and only up to the age of 60, omitting the children, women, and elderly.
There is another teaching that we need to understand. The Sages have said that Moses was equal to 600,000 of the Children of Israel (Zohar III:282b). Why was he not equal to all of the Children of Israel (who numbered more than 600,000 at the beginning of the book of Numbers), rather than to exactly that round number? (Concerning the number of the Children of Israel, consult the book Pituchei Chotam on Parsha Bamidbar).
We learn from this that the principle number of the Children of Israel is 600,000, those in addition to this number being reincarnations or sparks of holiness belonging to the 600,000. As the Rashash wrote, a man should repent even of the sins that he hasn’t committed, for it’s possible that his soul is connected to someone who has in fact committed them. Consequently, Moses was equal to 600,000 of the Children of Israel, who are in fact the indispensable portion of them. The totality of the Jewish community (including the reincarnations and the sparks) is including in that number, as well as the women, children, and elderly. This is because Eve was the mother of all the living (Genesis 3:10) and she herself was part of Adam. Now the descendants of Adam are the principle element, and the souls of the Children of Israel are completely a part of it (see Zohar Chadash Shir Hashirim 82b).
This is why the Children of Israel were compared to “the sand of the sea, which can neither be measured nor counted,” for each time that they will number 600,000, there will also be among them reincarnated souls and sparks that are impossible to count, and consequently the evil eye will have no power over them. In fact, when the Satan will want to number them in order to make them vulnerable to the evil eye, he will stop at 600,000 and be unable to continue, not knowing to whom the rest belong and who the reincarnated souls and sparks are connected to. He will therefore be incapable of striking Israel with the evil eye. This is the reason why G-d commanded that only 600,000 be counted, not more. The Satan would thus be unable to go beyond this, and there would be no evil eye in Israel. It is like this in every generation: The Children of Israel are not counted lest an epidemic strikes them (Yoma 22b), and so that the evil eye has no power over them.
We already find this idea concerning Balaam the son of Beor, who wanted to curse the Children of Israel but did not receive permission to do so. His intention was to make them susceptible to the evil eye, as the Ohr HaHaim says on the verse that states, “Who has counted the dust of Jacob or numbered a quarter of Israel?” (Numbers 23:10), and as the Zohar explains at length (Zohar III:147b). However Moses, having sensed this beforehand, beat him to it by counting the Children of Israel (which is recorded in our parsha). Furthermore, Aaron the Kohen gave them the priestly blessing (Numbers 6:23) in order that they be protected from the evil eye and all harm, for nothing is worse than the evil eye. This is why it is said concerning Balaam, “And he took up [vayisa] his parable” (Numbers 23:7), an expression which uses the same term as in the passage, “When you take [tisa] the sum of the Children of Israel” (Exodus 30:12). This is a word that designates counting, his intention being to strike them with the evil eye, something extremely harmful, since it has already been said that the evil eye is the cause of 99 deaths out of 100 (Bava Metzia 107b). But G-d closed his eye and he didn’t see the Children of Israel well enough to strike them with it, as it is written, “And thus says the man whose eye is closed” (Numbers 24:3).
We can also add that the wicked Balaam was a great prophet of the nations (Sifri Deuteronomy 34:10) and that he was mistaken. He thought that there were only 600,000 Children of Israel, corresponding to the number of shining stars, and he wanted to put the evil eye on them at the exact instant of G-d’s wrath (Berachot 7a), for he was deprived of the power of cursing. Yet when he saw that they were several times more numerous than 600,000, he didn’t know from where to begin counting, nor to whom the others were connected. This pertained to hidden matters, for even Moses was not included, following G-d’s orders, in the count of the Children of Israel. This was a very good thing, meant to protect us from the curse of the wicked Balaam and from his evil eye (see the Zohar on this). And this is the meaning of the verse that states, “Behold, the eye of the L-RD is on those who fear Him, upon those who await His kindness” (Psalms 33:18).
According to this, we perfectly understand the two different interpretations of the expression shetum ha’ayin (Numbers 24:3: “closed eye” or “seeing eye”). For Rashi, it refers to an eye that has been removed and can no longer see, whereas for Onkelos it refers to vision that is exceptionally clear. [Editor’s note: Certain commentators say that one eye is wide open while the other is shut, an opinion also found in the Gemara (Sanhedrin 105a). There is thus no contradiction between the two opinions]. On one hand, Balaam could see perfectly and wanted to count and to curse the Children of Israel in order that they be subject to the evil eye, but on the other hand he was confused when he saw more than 600,000, and he didn’t understand that they were sparks and reincarnations. His ability to see was therefore useless, for it is impossible to know the number of the Children of Israel, which can neither be measured nor counted.