Sedra Shorts

Ideas and commentaries on the weekly Torah readings.

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Location: Bet Shemesh, Israel

I taught Tanach in Immanuel College, London and in Hartman, Jerusalem. I was also an ATID fellow for 2 years. At present, I work for the Lookstein Center for Jewish Education in the Diaspora, in Bar-Ilan University, Israel. The purpose of this blog is to provide "sedra-shorts", short interesting ideas on the weekly Torah reading. Please feel free to use them and to send me your comments.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Parshat Ki Tissa

Counting the People

Moshe made a number of population censuses during Israel's wandering in the wilderness. Indeed, throughout the Tanach, especially before battles, the people are counted. Nevertheless, counting the people could lead to disaster and therefore the Torah says that a donation of half shekel should be made as part of the census. This will be considered as atonement for their souls so that "there will be no plague among them when they are counted" (Shemot 30:12).

There was one instance when the disaster struck Israel as the direct outcome of a census.

In the final chapter of Sefer Shmuel, King David tells Yoav: "Go now to and fro throughout all the tribes of Israel, from Dan to Beer-Sheva, and count the people, that I may know the sum of the people" (II Shmuel 24:2).

Yoav's response is one of caution: "May the Lord your God increase the number of the people many hundreds of times over, and may the eyes of my lord the king see it; but why does my lord the king desire this thing?" (ibid 3).

It is clear that Yoav was against the mission and saw it as asking for trouble.

Nevertheless, being a loyal servant, Yoav traverse the country and counts the people. After nine months and twenty days he reports his conclusions (1,300,000 fighters) back to the king. David immediately recognizes his mistake and his "heart smote him after that he had numbered the people" and he admits he has "been very foolish" (ibid 10).

70,000 people die as a result of a plague, a punishment that David chose, as a result of the census.

What is so bad about a census and why can it be catastrophic?

The answer is nothing; as long as there is a purpose to the census. The fact is that in order to prepare a country for the future, governments need to know its population tally, both nationally regionally and the projected growth in the different areas.

Yet, David's only desire was to "know the sum of the people", i.e. to know how powerful his kingdom was. So Yoav tries to dissuade him telling him that that he should be even greater but that he doesn't really need to know the exact figure.

However, when Moshe and others count the people, it is because they need to know how many fighters they have at their disposal, as they are preparing for battle.

That is why the actual counting is dangerous. The minute the people (AKA men of military age) are being counted, fear sets in that war (and possibly even a new taxation) is imminent. When will they see their families again, who will tend to the farm and ensure that their families are safe and looked after, and will they even be returning? The effect on the morale, the economy and other aspects of family and national life can be devastating.

Therefore, counting the people for no purpose is not just pointless, it's counter-productive.

In order to offset the breakdown in morale, the Torah asks that everyone counted submit a half shekel donation to the Temple. The people, who are confident in God's protective powers, will then have the assurance that "there will be no plague among them when they are counted". They and their families will be safe.

Last years' Sedra Short on Parshat Ki Tissa, entitled: "Blood Money" appears at http://parshablog.blogspot.com/2006_03_01_archive.html

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2 Comments:

Blogger The Hershbergs said...

Nice pshat R. Abelesz!
Rachel Hershberg

8:48 AM  
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