Counting the Jewish people creates a paradox. On the one hand, our sages tell us that G‑d wants our census taken because he loves us: precious things are counted and recounted by the one to whom they are dear. On the other hand, census taking can be a harmful endeavor that exposes us to great danger. Our sages speak of the "evil eye" that can befall a people when they are enumerated.

This is because a census achieves two contrary aims. By focusing on the total sum of the nation, it asks the individual to suspend his individuality for the purpose of the count. At the same time, by arriving at a number that comprises the sum of the nation's parts, each individual is compelled to ask himself if he is worthy of contributing to the total.

Every Jew is a child of G‑d and is therefore beloved to G‑d as children are beloved to their father. An individual's level of Torah observance—the degree to which he or she fulfills G‑d's commandments—does not enhance or detract from this love. G‑d's love for the Jewish people is, at least on this level, universal. This is reflected in a census because every Jew contributes equally to the total number, regardless of his or her level of piety or observance.1

On the other hand, the individual's shortcomings expose the entire nation to the danger of a census. Drawing attention to the strength of our numbers arouses the jealousy of our neighbors, which in turn exposes us to the dangers of the evil eye. The evil eye is aroused when one's actions trigger thoughts of jealousy in a neighbor's mind.

When others think jealously of our success, G‑d questions whether we deserve it any more than our neighbors do. Since every individual contributes to the total sum of the nation, it is appropriate for G‑d to scrutinize the behavior of the individual in judging the fate of the nation. The consequence for the entire nation can be catastrophic.2

Counting by not Counting

It is for this reason that G‑d instructed the Jewish people to offer a coin of atonement to charity when their census was taken.3 This contribution was to offer protection against exposure to the dangers of the evil eye.4

The coin had another significance. When Moses took the census, he did not actually count the people—he counted their coins. Each person gave one coin, and the total number of coins comprised the census of the nation. This method removes the evil eye by one more step. The Jews who were susceptible to the evil eye were not counted, at least not directly.5

This is why the common practice today in counting individuals for a minyan (the quorum of ten required for communal prayers) is to count by subtraction. We don't say "one, two, three..."; instead, we count, "not one, not two, not three, etc." In this way, it cannot be said that one has counted Jews—one has clearly not counted them. Another common method is to utilize the words of a ten-word verse from the Torah. In this way we have not counted, but merely recited a verse of Torah. This method is even more advantageous as the merit of the Torah offers further protection from the evil eye.

In his day, King Saul took a census of the Jewish people on two different occasions and implemented similar precautions. At one census, he instructed each person to take one sheep from the royal herd and then counted the sheep. Another time he asked each Jew to give one stone (or according to some opinions, a pottery shard) and he counted the stones (or shards).6 King David, on the other hand, once commissioned a census of the Jewish people and did not employ these precautions. As a direct result, the nation was punished and some of its glory was removed.7

In a Time of Merit

The vulnerability to which we are exposed through the census is a concern only when we are afraid that we would be found lacking in virtue if we should be judged by G‑d. When the Jewish people are in a meritorious state, we are clearly safe from the negative consequence of the census. At a time like that, the census will be only positive and will present no danger whatsoever.8

This may be one reason why the Jewish people are compared to stars of heaven. Every star is a shining luminescence, yet one star on its own would barely be noticed here on earth. It is only through the combination of the light from millions of stars that a beautiful canopy of points of light appears to us.

When a group of Jews are numbered, the individual shines through the total sum. It is true that in comparison to the whole, the individual pales; yet his contribution is vital and very much present.

On an even deeper level the Jewish people are compared to a very large human body. There are many limbs on the human body, and every one of them provides a crucial function that cannot be duplicated by another. No single limb makes up the entire body, yet without any one limb, the body would be lacking and even handicapped. A healthy body is comprised of individual healthy limbs working perfectly together.9

As long as every star shines or every limb is healthy, there is no danger to the greater body. Once the individual star dims or the individual limb weakens, the impact upon the entire body can be felt.

We now understand why our sages taught that a census should only be taken when the Jewish people are in a meritorious state. When the individual Jew shines like a star and contributes to the Jewish people in a positive sense, then shining a spotlight on him is advantageous to the whole. When the Jew does not fulfill the will of G‑d, then taking the census of the people underscores the paucity of the individual's contribution, and that can impact negatively upon the entire nation.

A Turn of Phrase

This paradox of counting is reflected in the choice of terminology that the Torah employs with regard to the census. Instead of the telling Moses to count the Jewish people, G‑d instructs to "raise" the Jewish people. The Hebrew word for "raise" is se'u. The word se'u has dual connotations. It means to raise but it also means to remove. It is used in the Torah in a positive sense, as in raising oneself to a higher level, but also in a negative sense, as in Joseph's prediction to the Egyptian minister of baking, "Pharaoh will raise (i.e., remove) your head from your shoulders."10

The Torah also uses the Hebrew word lifkod, which means to count. The literal translation of the world lifkod is to remember. Indeed, when something is counted, it is remembered. But the same word also means to be absent. The dual translation of this word also raises notions of paradox.11

When someone counts a group of people, the individuals being counted are at once raised and removed, remembered and absent. On the one hand, every individual is asked to remove himself and his individuality for the greater benefit of the whole group. This raises the individual to the level of the whole. On the other hand, every individual is crucial in comprising the total number of the group. In this sense, the individual is very much remembered.12