Our Sidra opens with G‑d’s command that a census be taken of the Israelites. In fact, there were three such counts taken in the first thirteen months following the exodus from Egypt. What is the spiritual significance of the counting ordained by G‑d? Why were there three censuses in such close proximity, and what was the difference between them? And what is the connection between this and Shavuot, which always falls close to the reading of Bamidbar? These questions form the theme of the Sicha.
1. Bamidbar and Shavuot
The Sidra of Bamidbar has a particular relevance to the festival of Shavuot. In general, every Sidra has a connection with the time of the year when it is read, and Bamidbar is usually read on the Shabbat before Shavuot. And in particular, Shavuot, which commemorates G‑d’s giving of the Torah to Israel, is called the wedding of Israel to G‑d; and on the Shabbat before a wedding, the bridegroom is called to the Torah as a preparation for the wedding. So Bamidbar is, as it were, a preparation for that special union between G‑d and His people which came upon their receiving the Torah.
We can find this connection in the opening words of the Sidra, where G‑d commands, “Count the number of all the congregation of the children of Israel.” The connection is hidden until we understand the true nature of the act of counting.
Rashi makes the following comment on the command: “Because they (the children of Israel) are dear to Him, He counts them all the time: When they went forth from Egypt He counted them; when they fell because of (the sin of) the golden calf, He counted them; when He was about to make His Presence dwell amongst them (i.e., in the Tabernacle), He counted them. For on the first of Nissan the Tabernacle was erected, and on the first of Iyar (the next month) He counted them.”
At first sight, this comment raises three problems:
(l) When one has things that are dear, one often takes them out to count them, to become, as it were, re-acquainted with them. But G‑d knows the number of the children of Israel without having to order a census. Why, then, did He command this public counting?
(2) Why was there a delay of one month between the third census and the event with which it was connected (the erection of the Tabernacle)?
(3) Why was there a difference between these three countings? The Torah does not tell us by whom the first (on the departure from Egypt) was undertaken. The second was done by Moses. But the third was commanded to both Moses and Aaron. Why was Aaron involved in this and not the others?
3. Counting as a Gesture of Love
Let us try and understand what was involved in the census. When things are counted, they stand in a relation of equality: the greatest man and the least are each counted once, no more, no less. And since, as Rashi tells us, the census was a token of G‑d’s love, it must have been a gesture towards that which in every Jew is equal. Not his intellect, not his moral standing, but his essence: his Jewish soul. Now this is something which we can not usually observe. So the point of the census was to bring the soul of each Jew into prominence, at the surface of awareness.
Now we can solve one of the difficulties in Rashi. He writes that G‑d counts His people all the time; and yet, as Rashi himself points out, they were counted only three times in the first year and one month after leaving Egypt; and then only once more (38 years later) during their wanderings in the wilderness; and subsequently only at very infrequent intervals (according to a Midrash, only a total of nine times until today, and the tenth time will be when the Messiah comes). One could interpret Rashi to mean “at special times”; yet he uses the emphatic phrase “all the time,” the implication of which cannot be escaped. But now we are in a position to understand, that if the point of the counting was to reveal the essence of each Jewish soul, then this revelation has a depth which places it beyond the erosions of time—it is operative, literally, all the time.
4. Time and the Jew
When, in times of religious persecution, a Jew is coerced into idolatry (and similarly with any transgression, which results from the coercion of one’s evil inclination,) there is a line of thought open to him. He might think: since repentance erases all sins (“Nothing stands in the face of repentance”), and since his betrayal of Judaism is only for a short time, and since the path of repentance will always be open to him, why worry about this one act?
And yet we find in all ages, and amongst all manner of men, Jews have been willing to sacrifice their lives rather than betray their faith, even for one moment, without stopping to make this kind of calculation. Why? Because the relation between G‑d and the Jewish soul is beyond time: to disrupt it for one moment is no less grave than to disrupt it for an age.
This is the meaning of “He counts them all the time”: The love which expressed itself in counting is deeper than the vicissitudes of time and calculation. It reveals that innermost point of the spirit of the Jew, which at every moment is ready for self-sacrifice. And this consequence, this heritage of the act of counting defines the Jew “all the time.”
5. The Three Countings
Now we can understand the difference between the three countings which Rashi mentions: they were evolutionary stages in a process of revelation. In the first, the Jewish soul was awakened by the love of G‑d; in the second, it began to work its influence on the outward life of the Israelites; and in the third, it finally suffused all their actions.
The first census was on the Israelites’ departure from Egypt, and it aroused their spirit of self-sacrifice to the extent that they were willing to follow G‑d into an unsown and barren wilderness. But it left their emotions untouched.
The second was prior to the building of the Tabernacle. It reached further outward to the intellect and emotions of the Israelites, because they were preparing themselves for the work that was to bring the Shechinah—G‑d’s Presence—into their very midst (“They shall build Me a Sanctuary, and I will dwell in them”). But still the impetus came from outside: it was G‑d’s command that set them to their work, not any inner compunction.
But with the third census came the actual service of the Tabernacle, when the Israelites, by their own actions, brought G‑d into their midst. Then all their actions were a testimony to the union of the Jewish soul with G‑d.
It now becomes clear why there had to be a delay of one month between the completion of the Tabernacle (in Nissan) and the third census (in Iyar). For Nissan is the month of Pesach, the time when we acknowledge the revelation that comes from above—it was not the merit of the Israelites that caused G‑d to take them out of Egypt, but G‑d’s mercy and kindness alone. But Iyar is the month of the Omer, the time of special sacrifices; and by sacrifice we bring about the “revelation that comes from below,” that answers to our merit and not merely to G‑d’s grace.
A parallel explanation leads us to understand why Aaron was involved in this and only this census. For Moses was the communicator of G‑d’s revelation—a channel from above to below. But Aaron the priest was he who elevated the people of Israel from below to above.
And at this third census, Israel finally reached the state where their own actions were permeated with the soul’s awareness. Now and only now could they bring about the “revelation that comes from below.”
In this way, the connection between Bamidbar and Shavuot becomes clear. When the Torah was given, Israel and G‑d were united in such a way that G‑d sent down His revelation from above; and the children of Israel were themselves elevated. And we read, in preparation for our annual recreation of the event, the Sidra which tells us of the third census, where the two modes of revelation, symbolized by Moses and Aaron, or by the month of Nissan (which occasioned the census) and the month of Iyar (when it was actually taken), are brought together. So that, by taking to heart the meaning of counting as a gesture of G‑d’s love for Israel, we can bring about that union which held at the giving of the Torah, when G‑d took His people Israel in marriage, so that through Torah Israel becomes united with G‑d.
(Source: Likkutei Sichot, Vol. VIII, pp. 1–7)