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“Take a census of the entire assembly of the children of Israel according to their families”
The sidrah begins with a detailed census of the people, tribe by tribe, as they prepare a military campaign to take the land. Rashbam suggests that the purpose of this census was to count the men over the age of 20 for military service.
The Torah forbids the counting of Jews directly. Even today, when counting for a minyan, the tally is traditionally counted “not-one, not-two”, or by a phrase with 10 words, or counting feet and dividing by two. When King David took a direct-count census, the nation was struck by a plague. (The Talmud exonerates David by presuming that he thought the prohibition of direct counting applied only in Moses’s time.)
Perhaps this reluctance to count Israelites, even when there is a good reason to do so, derives from the understanding that it is all too easy to make human beings into statistics. Ramban points out a particular feature of this census: each person is counted by name before Moses and Aaron, and is thus recognised as an individual. It is important to remember that each of those numbers represents a human being, one that might be killed in battle.
This is an idea we still hold dear: in 1920, when the Tomb of an Unknown Soldier was instituted at Westminster Abbey, an estimated 1,250,000 people visited the site the following week. It remains one of the world’s most visited war graves.
Or in the words of journalist Brian Hanrahan, commenting on the safe return of the Harrier jets during the Falklands conflict in 1982: “I counted them all out and I counted them all back.”
Every one matters, every one counts. As the poet Zelda wrote, summing up the importance of each and every war victim: “Lechol ish yesh shem”, “Everyone has a name.”