Battling the Evil Inclination: The Census of the Children of Israel
The fourth book of the Torah recounts the life of the Children of Israel from the second year of their departure from Egypt until the fortieth year of their travels in the desert. It mentions their journeys and encampments, and particularly the times when they angered the Holy One, blessed be He. It also deals with the subject of the spies who slandered the Holy Land, and on the rebellion of Korach and his followers against Moses.
This book is called Bamidbar (“In the Desert”) because the Children of Israel did not take on the characteristics of the desert. On this subject the Baal HaTurim writes: Why is the verse, “These are the commandments that the L-RD commanded Moses” (Leviticus 27:34) followed by, “The L-RD spoke to Moses in the desert of Sinai” (Numbers 1:1)? It is to teach us that one who does not consider himself like a desert, which is open to all – like the Torah, which is available to everyone (Tanhuma, Vayakhel 8) – cannot comprehend the Torah and G-d’s precepts. The Children of Israel, who where known as a generation of knowledge (Vayikra Rabba 9:1), did not learn the virtues of the desert while they lived there. That is why the book carries this name.
At the beginning of this book, Hashem commands that a tally of the entire congregation of the Children of Israel be made (Numbers 1:2). Each tribe was to be counted, as Rashi explains.
Three questions arise concerning this subject:
1. Why does the Torah go into such detail concerning the numbering of the Children of Israel?
2. The book of Numbers counts the tribe of Levi, yet stops at the offspring of Kohath. It only begins to count the offspring of Gershon in the following section, Parsha Nasso. Why this interruption and separation?
3. Why does the Torah repeatedly mention the age of the tribal members that were counted, since it states at the outset that the census consisted of those aged 20 years and up (Numbers 1:3)?
The saintly Ohr HaChaim explains that the Holy One, blessed be He, desired to highlight the greatness of the offspring of Gershon over the offspring of Kohath, who were charged with the holy task of transporting the Ark (Numbers 4:15). As for the offspring of Merari, the text only concerns itself with their number; it does not state that they were superior to others.
The Rambam and the Zohar (II:82a) teach that the goal of the mitzvot is to teach man how to battle the evil inclination. They show man the path to follow and the actions that one must take in that regard. What was G-d’s goal, therefore, when He commanded that a tally be taken of the Children of Israel? We know very well that the Holy One, blessed be He, fixed the number of stars and assigned a name to each of them (Psalms 147:4), and “He gives to the beast his food, and to the young ravens that cry out” (v.9). Therefore how can He not be interested in the Children of Israel? How can He not observe them at each instant to see who has stumbled, who is missing, and so on? The Midrash compares the Holy One, blessed be He, to a shepherd who counts his flock after they have been attacked by a wolf (Bamidbar Rabba 21:7). Hashem regularly takes a census of the Children of Israel to know who among them has succumbed to the forces of evil (G-d forbid) and who has remained holy.
The Holy One, blessed be He, demonstrated His interest in the offspring of Gershon, and He encouraged them to legaresh (expel) the evil inclination from their hearts. The text repeatedly mentions their age (20 years and up) in order to apply the phrase, “At twenty – lirdof [pursue]” (Perkei Avoth 5:22): Pursue the evil inclination and seek to eliminate it. It is in this way that we manage to elevate ourselves and cling to G-d. If the Children of Israel would consider themselves to be a desert, they would construct a sanctuary for G-d and He would dwell among them (see Exodus 25:8).