Classic Questions

Why did G‑d instruct Moshe to take a census of the Jewish people? (v. 1:1)

Rashi: Because they are precious to Him, He counts them all the time:

  1. When they left Egypt, He counted them;1
  2. When they sinned with the Calf, He counted them to know the number of the survivors;2 and
  3. When He rested His Presence among them, He counted them—on the first of Nisan the Tabernacle was erected, and on the first of Iyar [when this verse was said], He counted them.

Midrash: The Jewish people were counted on ten occasions:

  1. Once when they went down to Egypt;3
  2. Once when they departed from Egypt;4
  3. Once in [the beginning of the] Book of Numbers;
  4. Once in connection with the Spies;
  5. Once in the days of Yehoshua, when the Land was divided;
  6. Twice in the days of Sha'ul;5
  7. Once in the days of David;6
  8. Once in the days of Ezra;7 and
  9. Once in the future to come.8

The Rebbe's Teachings

He Counts Them All the Time" (Rashi, v. 1)

Rashi's comments on verse 1 appear to be self-contradictory. First he writes that since the Jewish people are precious to G‑d, "He counts them all the time." But then Rashi continues that G‑d only counted the Jewish people on special occasions ("when they left Egypt... when they sinned with the calf... when He rested His Presence among them"), and not "all the time."

Furthermore, Rashi was surely familiar with the teaching of the Midrash that the Jewish people will only be counted ten times throughout history. So how could Rashi state that G‑d "counts them all the time"?

The Explanation

G‑d's affection is extended towards the Jewish people at all times. And since counting is a direct result of this affection, Rashi writes, "Because they are precious to Him (which is all the time), He counts them all the time."

In order to prove this point, Rashi continues, "When they left Egypt, He counted them." This refers to the verse in Parshas Bo, which states: "The children of Israel journeyed from Ramses to Sukos, about six hundred thousand men."9 Since the Torah does not mention that any census took place, we can only assume that this number ("about six hundred thousand men") was counted by G‑d Himself. This supports Rashi's assertion that "He counts them all the time," i.e., even when no actual census is taking place, G‑d counts the Jewish people.

But how do we know that G‑d's affection is extended to the Jewish people all the time, even when they do not act favorably in G‑d's eyes? Rashi explains, "When they sinned with the Calf, He counted them." Clearly, if "they are [still] precious to Him" at such a difficult time, then G‑d's affection evidently extends to the Jewish people "all the time."

However, this leaves us with a question: If G‑d counts the Jewish people "all the time" in any case, why was an actual census required here in our parshah? Rashi explains, "When He rested His Presence among them, He counted them," i.e., our parshah speaks of a time when G‑d openly and visibly expressed His affection for the Jewish people by causing His Presence to rest among them. Therefore, it was appropriate that, likewise, the Jewish people should be counted openly and visibly.

And similarly, all the ten countings enumerated in the Midrash were associated with special events, which necessitated a special counting.10