This coming Shabbat we begin reading the Torah’s fourth book, Bamidbar – “Numbers,” so -called because in this book the Jewish people are counted twice. The first counting took place on the first day of Iyar, more than a year after they left Egypt.
The Torah provides an elaborate description of the counting process, and the people are tallied, in different configurations, five different times: (1) They were counted as members of their respective tribes, with a total given for each tribe. (2) The twelve tribes were then together tallied for a grand total of 603,550 people, who were divided into four different camps of three tribes each: (i) The camp of Judah, with Yissachar and Zevulun, (ii) the camp of Reuven, with Shimon and Gad, (iii) the camp of Ephraim, with Menashe and Binyamin, and (iv) the camp of Dan, with Asher and Naftali. These four camps each had a unique flag and camped in a specific position around the Tabernacle. (See the picture attached.) (3) Each tribe was again tallied upon joining their respective camp; (4) The total number in each camp was listed, even though we could have known this by just adding the total for each tribe in the camp, and (5) the number of people in all four camps was once again tallied equaling 603,550.
Needless to say, the Torah’s purpose is not simply to record historic information. Rather, the Torah is relating to us the formative events, those that influenced the Jewish Nation and collectively made the Jewish Nation into the great nation that it became. Why the apparent redundancy, and what is the significance of the multiple countings, the flags, and the position of the tribes surrounding the Tabernacle? And why was this the very first thing that God did in the desert?
Rashi explains (Bamidbar 1:1):
מתוך חיבתן לפניו מונה אותם כל שעה. כשיצאו ממצרים מנאן, וכשנפלו בעגל מנאן לידע מנין הנותרים. כשבא להשרות שכינתו עליהן מנאן. באחד בניסן הוקם המשכן, ובאחד באייר מנאם:
Because of His love for them, Hashem is always counting them. When they left Egypt, He counted them, and when they fell, sinning with the golden calf, He counted them to know how many remained. Now, when He came to rest His Divine Presence upon them (in the Tabernacle), He counted them again. Because they erected the Tabernacle in Nissan, He counted them in the next month, Iyar.
But how does counting His people reflect Hashem’s love for them?
Sometimes, one counts to know how many of something he has. But, sometimes, one knows the exact number of items that he has, yet he counts them again and again. He counts them because each item in the collection is precious and he wants to appreciate each one individually. To an art collector, for example, each piece in the collection is special and exemplifies a different facet of the art of painting. No two are alike, and there are no extras. The collector takes great care before adding a piece to his collection, ensuring that it is not “just another painting.” Each one must be “a find,” a rare piece of art not commonly found, that illustrates a feature not present in any other piece. Hence, the larger the collection, the broader the scope of what art has to offer is represented. When a collector counts the pieces in his collection, he expresses his love for his art. He lovingly revels in every piece, contemplating its virtues, enjoying its beauty, and appreciating how it contributes to, and rounds out, his collection.
Similarly, in Hashem’s great love for His people, He sees each one as a rare find, unique and unparalleled by any other, and He counts them not to know how many they are, but, rather, to confer attention to each one and revel in that person’s special service to Him.
Nachmanides (Numbers 1:18) adds a different perspective to the matter, explaining that Hashem’s counting conferred two direct benefits on the Jewish people:
That they themselves should know their numbers so that they would appreciate Hashem’s blessing to them. As it says in Deuteronomy (10:22),
(כב) בְּשִׁבְעִים נֶפֶשׁ יָרְדוּ אֲבֹתֶיךָ מִצְרָיְמָה וְעַתָּה שָׂמְךָ יְדֹוָד אֱלֹהֶיךָ כְּכוֹכְבֵי הַשָּׁמַיִם לָרֹב
22) With seventy souls your ancestors descended to Egypt, and now Hashem your G-d has made you abundant like the stars of heaven.
Hashem compares the Jewish people to the stars of heaven. As far as the stars are concerned, King David (Psalm 147:4) informs us:
(ד) מוֹנֶה מִסְפָּר לַכּוֹכָבִים לְכֻלָּם שֵׁמוֹת יִקְרָא:
4) He counts the number of the stars, naming all of them.
The Talmud (Berachot 32b) tells us that there are exactly 1,064,340,000,000,000,000 stars in the universe and yet, Hashem knows the “name” of each one. How are we to understand counting the stars, and, yet, giving each one a name?
Our universe comprises stars that make up galaxies. There are trillions of galaxies in the universe, each comprising hundreds of billions of stars. Although appearing like a small speck in the sky, a star is really extremely large, often many times larger than our sun. Each star in a galaxy exerts a gravitational pull on all the others and provides a crucial part of the balance of stars in the galaxy. Thus, each star carries a double role: It is both part of the multitude of stars that make up the galaxy, but it is also a very large and a substantial entity unto itself. Hence, the number reflects its role in the galaxy whereas its name reflects its own unique greatness.
Similarly, every Jew has a role both as a member of the Jewish nation and as an individual with a unique personal mission based on who he is and his special relationship with Hashem.
The second benefit conferred upon the Jewish people by being counted was that in the process, each person received a blessing from Moshe and Aharon.
The nation was not counted by head; rather, each person brought a half a shekel coin (the denomination at the time) to Moshe, Aharon, and the prince of his tribe. Upon stating his tribe, the half-shekel was placed in the box designated for his tribe and later counted to determine the tribe’s number.
Nachmanides in his commentary (Bamidbar 1:45) describes what happened:
כי כאשר צוה אותם משה כן מפי הקב”ה נקהלו כל העדה כלם אל פתח אהל מועד, חוץ מערב רב אשר לא מבני ישראל המה כי ניכרים היו בהם מיום שיצאו ממצרים והנה הביאו כל העדה איש שקלו, ואמרו לפני משה והנשיאים, אני פלוני נולדתי לפלוני ממשפחת פלוני שהוא לשבט ראובן וזולתו, ומשה נותן שקלי כל שבט ושבט במקום מיוחד,
When Moshe told them that Hashem commanded him to count them, the entire nation gathered in front of the Tent of Meeting (The Tabernacle) … and each person brought his half shekel and said to Moshe and the princes of the tribes who were with him, “I am so-and-so, born to so-and-so from this family, from this tribe.” And Moshe would place the coins of each tribe in a designated place.
ועוד כי הבא לפני אב הנביאים ואחיו קדוש ה’ והוא נודע אליהם בשמו יהיה לו בדבר הזה זכות וחיים, כי בא בסוד העם ובכתב בני ישראל וזכות הרבים במספרם, וכן לכולם זכות במספר שימנו לפני משה ואהרן כי ישימו עליהם עינם לטובה, יבקשו עליהם רחמים, ה’ אלהי אבותיכם יוסף עליכם ככם אלף פעמים ולא ימעיט מספרכם, והשקלים כופר על נפשותיכם
When one came before the Father of all Prophets – Moshe, and his brother, Hashem’s Holy designate (Aharon), one who they know by name, this would bring great merit and life to him. Since he is an integral member of the Jewish nation, he would receive benefit from the merit of the nation as a whole. Each one also received extra merit in being counted before Moshe and Aharon because they would look favorably upon him and ask Hashem to have mercy on him by saying, “Hashem, the G-d of your forefathers, should add onto you a thousand-fold, and your numbers should not decrease. And may the half shekel provide atonement for your soul.
The Vilna Gaon in his commentary to Mishley (Proverbs) says:
ביאור הגר”א – משלי פרק טז פסוק ד
וכשהיו נביאים היו הולכין אצל הנביאים לדרוש את ה’ והיה הנביא אומר ע”פ משפט הנבואה דרכו אשר ילך בה לפי שורש נשמתו ולפי טבעת גופו
When prophets lived among the Jewish people, people would go to them to inquire as to their mission in this world as far as to how serve Hashem. The prophet, based on his power of prophesy, would tell each person the unique path that he was to follow, based on the source of his soul and his physical nature.
Perhaps, through his extreme prophetic power, as Moshe received the coin from each person and inquired as to who he was, he told each person his purpose in this world. Moshe and Aharon would then bestow a blessing upon him giving him a jump-start on his mission. What a life changing event it must have been to speak in person with Moshe and Aharon and to receive a blessing directly from them!
The matter of the flags brings this idea to a whole new level.
The Midrash tells us:
ילקוט שמעוני שיר השירים – פרק ז – המשך רמז תתקצב
עובדי אלילים אומרים לה שובי שובי השולמית הדבקו לנו ובאו לכם אצלנו ואנו עושים אתכם דוכסין שלטונים והגמונים, וישראל אומרים להם מה תחזו בשולמית, מה גדולה אתם נותנים לנו שמא כמחולת מחנים שמא אתם יכולים ליתן גדולה שנתן לנו הקב”ה במדבר דגל מחנה יהודה דגל מחנה ראובן דגל מחנה אפרים דגל מחנה דן יכולין אתם לעשות כן לנו.
The nations of the world said to the Jewish Nation. “Come and join us, and we will make you dukes, rulers, and governors.” And the Jewish people answer them, “What greatness can you possibly give us? Are you able to give us the greatness of the flags that Hashem bestowed upon His people in the wilderness? The flag of the camps of Yehuda, Reuven, Ephraim, and Dan.
In the response to the enticements of greatness and glory, the Jewish people talk about their flags and their position around the Tabernacle as the greatest thing in the world, something that no other position of stature could possibly provide. What could be the meaning of this? What was so satisfying about them?
A different Midrash (Bamidbar Rabba 2:3) reveals the source of the flags that Hashem gave His people:
בשעה שנגלה הקב”ה על הר סיני ירדו עמו כ”ב רבבות של מלאכים שנאמר (תהלים סח) רכב אלהים רבותים אלפי שנאן והיו כולם עשוים דגלים דגלים שנאמר (שיר ה) דגול מרבבה כיון שראו אותן ישראל שהם עשוים דגלים דגלים התחילו מתאוים לדגלים אמרו אלואי כך אנו נעשים דגלים כמותן … אמר להם הקב”ה מה נתאויתם לעשות דגלים חייכם שאני ממלא משאלותיכם (תהלים כ) ימלא ה’ כל משאלותיך מיד הודיע הקב”ה אותם לישראל ואמר למשה לך עשה אותם דגלים כמו שנתאוו:
When God revealed Himself on Mount Sinai when giving the Torah to the Jewish people, twenty-two thousand angels accompanied Him. They were all grouped under different flags surrounding God’s chair of glory. When the Jewish people saw the flags, they began craving the same for themselves. They said, “We wish we could have flags like they do!” …When Hashem saw that the Jewish people wanted flags, He granted their desire and commanded Moshe to group them by flag.
What is the significance of the angels being grouped under different flags, and what did the Jewish people see in this that they wanted so much?
The angels surrounding Hashem’s Chair of Glory were created to be its foundation. Our sages explain that each angel is created for a specific and unique purpose, as one angel cannot do two different missions. Thus, his mission is very clear. Angels, moreover, can have contradictory missions. For example, Michael is the angel of water and Gabriel is the angel of fire yet they stand right next to each other in heaven without conflict. How can that be? Being that each angel is clear and complete in his unique mission, he feels no threat or possible encroachment from any other angel. Together, all these individually unique angels create the basis for Hashem’s Chair of Glory.
The grouping of the angels by flag and their position surrounding the Chair of Glory indicates the specific mission of each angle, vis-à-vis his fellow angel and vis-à-vis Hashem. Every angel knew exactly where he stood and what he was supposed to do.
Nachmanides (Bamidbar 2:2) provides more depth to this idea, explaining that our Sages teach us that Reuven’s flag had the picture of a man on it, Yehuda’s had a picture of a lion, Ephraim’s a picture of an ox, and Dan’s a picture of an eagle. These images correspond to the faces of the Cherubs that surrounded Hashem’s Chair of glory as described by the prophet Yechezkel.
The flags of the tribes surrounding the Mishkan, where Hashem’s presence dwelt, mirrored the configuration of the angels that surrounded Hashem’s Chair of Glory. Hashem’s kingdom on the earth is a mirror image of His kingdom in Heaven, and His Glory on earth rests on the Jewish nation. They provide the foundation for Hashem’s Kingdom here on earth.
The Midrash adds another level of depth to the configuration.
מדרש רבה במדבר – פרשה ב פסקה י
וכשם שברא הקב”ה ד’ רוחות העולם כך סיבב לכסא ד’ חיות ולמעלה מכולם כסא הכבוד וכנגדן סידר הקב”ה הדגלים למשה אמר לו הקב”ה משה מזרח שממנו אור יוצא לעולם יהיה כנגדו יהודה שהוא בעל מלוכה שנא’ והחונים קדמה מזרחה דגל מחנה יהודה וגו’ ועליו שבט יששכר שהוא בעל תורה שנא’ (ד”ה א יב) ומבני יששכר יודעי בינה לעתים וכן הוא אומר והחונים עליו מטה יששכר וגו’ ועליו זבולון שהוא בעל עשירות
Just as Hashem created the four directions of the earth, so He surrounded His Chair of Glory with four animals, one in each direction, and put His Chair of Glory upon them. Corresponding to these four animals Hashem instructed Moshe to set up the flags of the tribes around the Mishkan. Hashem said to Moshe, “The east from which the light enters the world, corresponds to Yehuda who represents the royalty in the Jewish nation… with him should camp Yisachar who represents Torah and Zevulun who represents wealth…
The Midrash continues to explain how each flag and the tribes that camped under it were perfectly suited to occupy their specific position around the Mishkan, such that the configuration of the tribes mirrored the configuration of the angels surrounding Hashem’s Chair of Glory.
It is this idea that the Jewish people found so desirable! They understood that Hashem’s Chair of Glory rested on multitudes of angels each in his correct position, performing his unique mission, and that the same obtains here on earth. Hashem’s Glory rests on the Jewish nation and is contingent on each person being in his proper position performing his unique mission in this world. This is how they would build Hashem’s kingdom on this earth. Being grouped by flag would give them a clear vision both of their mission as individuals and as a tribe within the framework of the entire nation. Furthermore, this would guarantee peace, since each person would be clear on his mission and not be jealous or encroach on anyone else’s mission. Such a system would allow them to stay focused on their mission in life.
This explains the response of the Jewish Nation to the offer of the nations of the world. “True, you offer positions of glory and importance in the eyes of the world, to be dukes, rulers, and governors. But will that bring any of us closer to fulfilling our individual missions in life as a Jews and as members of the Jewish nation? This is the unique purpose for which each of us was put on this earth.”
In today’s world, we face the same offer from world’s nations. When a Jew would follow the ways of the world, there is no position he cannot hold. The Jew is gifted and industrious and he excels at anything he sets his mind to accomplish. The world beckons us. “Join us! Become one of us! We will make you dukes, rulers and governors!”
Our response is, “Can you offer us flags? How will that help me fulfill my special and unique mission as a Jew to build Hashem’s kingdom here on earth? I have been chosen for a mission, and Hashem and my nation are relying on me to fulfill it.”
In a much greater sense, the Jewish nation is not just an assortment of different human beings thrown together haphazardly into an assemblage. Each Jew is, so to speak, hand-made by Hashem, with different virtues, features, and flaws, and each was designed to fill a specific need and role in the Jewish nation. No one is extra or unnecessary. The Jewish nation’s role in the world, to build Hashem’s kingdom by representing Him and make the truth of His existence known to all, is the purpose of creation. Each member fulfills that mission by using his different virtues and features, while overcoming his flaws and shortcomings, to serve Hashem. This is what Hashem revels in, and why He repeatedly counted His people.
This is also why He counted them five times. Each of these “countings” represented a different role that a person would assume. First, as a member of his tribe, each of which had a specific mission. Second, each tribe vis-à-vis the other tribes, as they together comprise the entire Jewish nation. Third, each tribe joined with two others to serve in yet a different role, depending on their location relative to the Mishkan, as a specific sector of the nation. Here, again, there would be two different roles, one vis-à-vis the other two tribes in the sector, and one as a member of their sector vis-à-vis the other three sectors. Finally, there is the roll of each sector as part of the whole nation.
This is also why this was the very first thing Hashem did in the wilderness. He wanted to impress the importance of each individual to the entire nation.
The unique roll of each tribe was determined by Yaakov Avinu, their father. Just before he passed away, he gathered his 12 sons around his bed and bestowed a unique blessing upon each of them. In each case, it is eminently clear that Jacob understood the essence and mission of each of his sons. Thus, his blessing to them was actually the charge to each of them to embark on their mission in life by using each of his God given talents to the max in order to reach his goal in life both as an individual and as a member of the Jewish nation.
When Jacob passed away and was being carried back to Israel for burial in “Mearat Hamachpela” his final resting place, only his twelve sons were allowed to carry the coffin, and Jacob instructed each of them exactly where they were to stand. He set three tribes on each side of his bed, and that set the exact configuration for the tribes as they camped around the Tabernacle. It also mirrors the configuration of the angels around God’s Chair of Glory that the Jews saw at the giving of the Torah on Sinai.
All of this indicates the position and role each was to play in the destiny of the Jewish people. And from each of their unique vantage points, as they focused on the Mishkan, Hashem’s dwelling place, the epicenter of the world. From their unique perspective, they were able understand their special mission in the world.
This concept is true today with each one of us as well: We each have a specific divine mission as a Jew for which we were placed on this earth. The time in world history, the city in which we were born, the home in which we grew up, the gifts and talents that we have been endowed with, and, yes, even our shortcomings, are all carefully orchestrated and synthesized to create the person that we are, so that we can fulfill our mission in this world.
How are we to know what our mission is? We must assess our talents and follow our hearts about what we are most suited to do. My Rebbe, Rabbi Aryeh Rottman ,זצ”ל once told me. “You just enlist in Hashem’s army and He will station you where he needs you.” One thing is certain. Each of us was created to play an important role in the Jewish Nation’s destiny, and it is our obligation to seek it out and accomplish it.