"Take a census of the whole Israelite community" Numbers 26:2

By Sally Berkovic, July 14, 2011

Did you tick the Jewish box in the recent Census? Were you willing to be counted as part of the Jewish people?
There was no opting out in this week's parashah. God instructed Moses and Elazar to count the male members of the community from the age of 20. This was a practical necessity - to clarify the number of people to be conscripted for battle and allow for planning land distribution between the various tribes and their clans. This is the second instruction to take a census in the appropriately named Book of Numbers - the first was in Parashat Bemidbar (1:2).

In both places, the Hebrew translates literally as "lift the head", on which Menachem Nahum of Chernobyl commented, "Let the Israelites hold their heads high in pride as they contemplate who their ancestors were". Just before Parashat Pinchas, the Torah records the plague of Ba'al Peor that killed 24,000. Samson Raphael Hirsch suggests that the census enabled the remorseful Israelites to regain their sense of self-worth identity. Ramban suggests that the census was a testimony to Israel's survival despite the efforts of Pharaoh and Amalek.

However, with one exception, only men were counted. Serach, the daughter of Asher (26:46), is the sole female mentioned. She is also the only granddaughter mentioned in the listing of the descendants of Jacob in Vayigash (Genesis 46:17) and tradition suggests that she was the one who told Jacob about Joseph's survival in a way that would not shock him. Later on, she tells Moses where to find Joseph's grave - surely a woman to count on.

Beyond counting, the census became a symbolic mechanism linking people to their parent's actions, their identity and to the history of their community. You might want to think about that at the next census in 2021.

Last updated: 9:51am, July 14 2011