A Most Revealing Count
The majority of the Torah portion Bamidbar revolves around the census of the Jewish people on the “first day of the second month [Iyar] of the second year of the Exodus,”6 at which time G-d commanded that the nation be counted.
Rashi7 notes that G-d’s love for the Jewish people causes Him to count them at every opportunity. Thus He counted them a) when they departed Egypt; b) after the sin of the Golden Calf and prior to the erection of the Mishkan ; c) with the erection of the Mishkan He counted them yet again, “for the Mishkan was erected on the first of Nissan and He counted them on the first of Iyar ” — exactly one month later.
Surely G-d knew how many Jews there were without a census. Why, then, His repeated requests to count them?
Furthermore, while G-d chose to count the Jewish people three times in a little over a year, we do not find Him commanding a subsequent count for the next 38 years. What reason did He have for counting them at these three specific points?
The census of the Jewish people saw all counted equally; the greatest was counted as no more than one, the least significant was counted as no less than one.
As such, it is understandable that G-d’s love for the Jewish people — a love that finds expression in His counting them at every opportunity — is not the result of their particular merits (which differ from one Jew to another) but because of their quintessential Jewishness, in which all Jews are equal.
Since the quintessential aspect of a Jews’ Jewishness transcends revelation, G-d commanded that the Jewish people be counted — although He surely knew their exact number — in order to reveal this aspect, for “counting” reveals this essential level.
When this quality is invoked within a Jew, he will readily give his very life in order not to be sundered from G-d. More particularly, the revelation of a Jew’s essential Jewishness will generally have one of three effects:
a) It is possible that although this quality is revealed within a Jew, it will not have an ongoing impact on his intellect, emotions, speech and actions.
Thus, while as a rule even the most sinful Jew will face martyrdom rather than deny G-d’s unity,8 this same person may very well transgress in other areas, the reason being that this quality did not influence his intellect, emotions, etc.
b) Alternately, this essential quality may not permeate and transform him, but rather overpower and overwhelm him.9
c) Finally, the quintessential aspect of the person’s Jewishness may so permeate the individual that all his powers and faculties are transformed and act in tandem with this essential quality.
Herein lies the reason for the three counts: At the time of the Exodus, the Jews’ simple faith in G-d was revealed. However, it did not affect their inner powers — the count affected them only on the most elementary level.10
The Mishkan was then to be erected in order for G-d to reveal Himself and reside “within them”11 — within each and every Jew.12 For this to transpire, yet another count was necessary, so that their essential quality would be revealed in a manner that affected their inner powers as well.
Yet this revelation too came about as a result of G-d’s desire to dwell within them, and as such did not transform the Jews themselves. Once the mishkan was erected and G-d resided within them as a result of their own service, the third count permitted the Jews’ essential quality to permeate and transform their entire being.
Based on Likkutei Sichos Vol. VIII, pp. 1-6.
1. Bamidbar 1:1-2.
2. Ibid., verse 4.
3. 347a and onward.
4. Beitzah 3b, and citations ad loc; Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 110:1; Shulchan Aruch Admur HaZakein, Orach Chayim 447:20.
5. See Likkutei Sichos VII p. 3ff.
6. Bamidbar 1:1.
8. See Tanya ch. 18ff.
9. See Siddur Im Dach, beginning of Sha’ar Lag B’Omer.
10. Thus the reason for the Jewish people having to flee Egypt in great haste. See Tanya ch. 31.
11. Shmos 25:8.
12. See Likkutei Sichos III , p. 906 and places cited there.