"Take the sum of the entire congregation of the children of Israel. [Include in this census all of those] from twenty years old and upwards, according to their paternal houses, [i.e.,] all who are fit to go out to the army in Israel."

Classic Questions

Why did God command a census at this time? (v. 1ff.)

Rashi: This could be compared to a shepherd whose flock was attacked by wolves and some sheep were killed, so he counted them to know how many were left.

Another interpretation: When they left Egypt and were placed in Moshe's hands, they were handed over to him with an account of their number. Now that he was close to death and would soon have to return his flock, he gave them back with an account of their number.

Sifsei Chachamim: Rashi was troubled: What is the connection between the end of the plague and the census? He thus brought the analogy of a shepherd counting his remaining sheep after some of them were killed by wolves, which explains the connection.

However, this solution is problematic, for if the purpose of the census was merely to quantify how many people survived the plague, then why did they not simply count the number that had passed away, rather than counting the entire population?

Due to this problem, Rashi brought a second interpretation, that the census occurred at this point because Moshe was soon to die and pass on his "flock." The reason why the census appears here is thus not directly connected with the plague, but rather with God's command to destroy the Midianites, in verse 17 above. Later we will read how God told Moshe that he would pass away after the battle with Midian (below 31:2), so verse 17 above is, in effect, the first signal of Moshe's imminent passing. Therefore the census was carried out here: "Now that he was close to death and would soon have to return his flock."

However, this interpretation is flawed, as Moshe's death was still several months ahead, so it is difficult to understand why the census occurred now. Therefore, Rashi brought the first interpretation too.

The Rebbe's Teachings

Moshe's Final Census (v. 1ff.)

In his first interpretation, Rashi explains that the current census "could be compared to a shepherd whose flock was attacked by wolves and some sheep were killed, so he counted them to know how many were left."

Sifsei Chachamim explains that Rashi's comment was intended to clarify why the census came after the plague that killed many thousands of people, as verse 1 states, "It was after the plague..."

However, it is difficult to accept that this was Rashi's only intention, for the need to count a population after many lives has been lost is self-explanatory. Why would an analogy be needed to clarify this point?

Rashi's analogy here becomes even more confusing when we compare it to a similar analogy that he cited (in Parshas Ki Sisa) to explain why a census was carried out after the sin of the Golden Calf:

"This could be compared to a flock of sheep that was dear to its owner which was struck by a plague. When it ended, he said to the shepherd, 'I have a request for you: Count my sheep so that you know how many of them are left.' This was in order to make it known that they were dear to him" (Rashi to Shemos 30:16).

A number of key distinctions emerge here:

  1. In Parshas Ki Sisa, the census was initiated by the "owner" of the sheep. Here, however, Rashi makes no reference to the owner, and writes that the census was carried out through the initiative of the "shepherd."
  2. In Parshas Ki Sisa, the sheep are killed by "a plague," and in our parsha, by "wolves."
  3. In Parshas Ki Sisa, Rashi writes that the sheep were counted "to make it known that they were dear to him" (i.e., the owner), whereas in our parsha no reference is made to this point.

What is the reason for all these changes?

Rashi's Second Interpretation

Rashi was not satisfied with the above, and he continues:

"Another interpretation: When they left Egypt and were placed in Moshe's hands, they were handed over to him in a precise number. Now that he was close to death and would soon have to return his flock, he gave them back in a precise number."

What difficulty with Rashi's first interpretation prompted him to bring a second one?

Sifsei Chachamim argues that Rashi was troubled as to why a census of the entire population was necessary to ascertain how many people died in the plague. Surely, it would have been easier to count the casualties?

However, this is difficult to accept in light of Rashi's comment at the beginning of Parshas Bamidbar: "Because they are precious to Him, He counts them all the time." Clearly, a census is an expression of Divine affection for the Jewish people which God is eager to carry out at every opportunity, even if it is not necessary.

A further problem with Rashi's second interpretation is that it does not seem to explain the connection between the plague and the census, as Sifsei Chachamim asks. (Sifsei Chachamim's solution requires familiarity with a later verse in Parshas Matos (See Classic Questions), and it is difficult to accept that Rashi, who wrote his commentary for the beginner, relied on the reader to be familiar with later material in order to understand the current discussion.)

The Explanation

Earlier, at the end of Parshas Balak, we read how the Jewish people were punished for the sin of Ba'al Pe'or in two ways: i.) There was a plague which killed 24,000 people (25:9). ii.) "Moshe said to the judges of Israel, 'Each of you should kill men who became attached to Ba'al Pe'or'" (v. 5 ibid.). Rashi explains: "Each one of the Jewish judges executed two men, and there were 88,000 Jewish judges." From this it follows that 166,000 people were executed by the judges, a much greater loss than that which occurred through the plague.

So on reaching our verse, Rashi was troubled: Why does the Torah stress that the census was made "after the plague," omitting any mention of the losses that occurred through the judges, which were several times greater?

To answer this question, Rashi writes: "This could be compared to a shepherd whose flock was attacked by wolves." I.e., we are not speaking here of a case like that of Parshas Ki Sisa, where the owner of the sheep asks for his flock to be counted "in order to make it known that they were dear to him," after an incident which was beyond the shepherd's control, "a plague." Rather, this census was the responsibility of the shepherd himself, due to "an attack of wolves," something the shepherd should have averted, since it is his job to protect the sheep from wolves. Thus, by modifying the analogy here, Rashi has brought to light a distinction between Moshe's role in the sin of the Golden Calf (Parshas Ki Sisa) and his role in the sin of Ba'al Pe'or. During the sin of the Golden Calf, Moshe was on Mount Sinai, and was thus not responsible for what happened. Therefore, the losses which the Jewish people incurred are compared to a "plague," which was beyond the control of the shepherd, and the census which followed the disaster was purely an expression of God's ("the owner's") love for the Jewish people, and not Moshe's ("the shepherd's") negligence.

However, during the sin of Ba'al Pe'or, Moshe was present, so he might have felt responsible for some of the deaths. As Rashi writes, when Zimri took Kazby into a tent in Moshe's presence, "The law was concealed from him. So they all burst out weeping" (25:6), and it was Pinchas—not Moshe—who remembered the law and took immediate action, causing the plague to stop. So, Moshe might have felt that he was culpable for some of the losses at least, since he had not remembered the law at a crucial moment.

Of course, we know that it was not Moshe's fault, since God had concealed the law from Moshe, "so that Pinchas could come and take [the reward] that he deserved" (Rashi ibid.). But Moshe did not know that, so he would have felt somewhat responsible for his "failure" amid this crisis of the plague. But he would not have felt the same way about the 166,000 people that were executed by the Jewish judges, since this was a clear ruling of the court.

Rashi's analogy thus explains why the Torah stresses that this census was "after the plague," omitting the fact that it was also after the execution of a further 166,000 people by the judges—because Moshe carried out this census with a sense of personal responsibility for the lives lost during the plague that were connected with his (apparent) negligence, which was not the case for the other losses. By counting the people after his "negligence," Moshe was affirming his intention to be a more responsible shepherd in the future.

Rashi's Second Interpretation

Rashi was not satisfied with his first interpretation, as it appears to be out of context here. For if Moshe was now counting the Jewish people not merely to discharge an obligation from God, but as an important act of leadership, to re-commit himself to the people he was to lead in the future, he would have surely involved Yehoshua, who was soon to take over the leadership from Moshe just a few months later.

Therefore, Rashi cites a second interpretation which explains this matter more satisfactorily: "When they left Egypt and were placed in Moshe's hands, they were handed over to him with an account of their number. Now that he was close to death and would soon have to return his flock, he gave them back with an account of their number."

However, while this interpretation does explain why Yehoshua was not involved in the counting, it does not clarify why the census occurred here "after the plague," and not immediately before Moshe's passing. Therefore, Rashi cited it only as a secondary interpretation.

(Based on Likutei Sichos vol. 18, p. 326ff.)