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The Avodah of the Three Censuses

In the beginning of Parshas Bamidbar, the Torah relates that on Rosh Chodesh Iyar, in the second year from when Bnei Yisroel left Mitzrayim, Hashem instructed Moshe to count Bnei Yisroel.

Rashi explains that since Bnei Yisroel are precious before Hashem, He counts them constantly. He counted them when they left Mitzrayim; He counted them a second time after the chet ha’egel, to see how many were left; and now, when He was ready to rest His shechinah upon them (in the Mishkan), He counted them yet again. Rashi concludes that on Rosh Chodesh Nissan the Mishkan was erected, and subsequently, on Rosh Chodesh Iyar they were counted.

But why did Hashem wait an entire month before counting them? If this counting was related to the erection of the Mishkan, why wasn’t it done earlier?

A Census Analysis

We find a distinction between these three censuses:

When the Jews left Mitzrayim, the verse states that they comprised six hundred thousand men. However, it does not specify who did the counting. In fact, it is unclear if an actual census took place or if the possuk is merely relating how many Jews there were.

The second census, the one mentioned in the beginning of Parshas Ki Sisa, was done through Moshe. Although it was done to see how many survivors there were (as Rashi says here), it was not done immediately after the chet ha’egel. Instead (as Rashi says in Parshas Ki Sisa), it was done after Yom Kippur, when Hashem commanded the Jews to build the Mishkan.

The reason for this delay is simple. Since the second census (as the others) demonstrated the preciousness of the Jewish nation, it could not be done immediately after the chet ha’egel, when this element was not visible. Instead, it was done after Yom Kippur, when Hashem forgave Bnei Yisroel completely—as seen from the fact that they were then instructed to build the Mishkan.

The third census was also related to the Mishkan; however, it was done (not when the Jews were instructed to build the Mishkan, as was the second census, but) after the Mishkan was actually erected. Moreover, unlike the second census which was done only by Moshe, in this one, Aharon (and the nesi’im) participated as well.

What is the significance behind these differences?

Counting the Nekudas Hayahadus

To explain this, we must first understand the deeper meaning of counting.

When tallying a group of people, each person is counted equally. The greatest individual is no more than one, and the lowliest person is no less than one.

Why is this indeed so?

Every Jew is comprised of two dimensions. There are the details that make up his character—the extent of his academic skills and his emotions, and so on. But then there is the nekudas hayahadus, the fact that he is a Jew. In this regard, all Jews are equal. This, then, is the purpose of counting: to reveal this essential core of Jewishness and bring it to the fore.

More particularly, this concept of revealing the nekudas hayahadus can be done in three ways, corresponding to the three censuses of the Jews: when they left Mitzrayim, when they were instructed to build the Mishkan, and a month after it was erected.

Illogical Pursuit

When the Jews left Mitzrayim, they were drawn after Hashem without calculations; although they had no provisions, they followed Him to a barren desert. They were not motivated by intellectual reasoning or any other factor; it was the result of their pure faith, emanating from their nekudas hayahadus.

If a Jew connects to Hashem with his outer dimension—the details that form his spiritual character—his connection will be limited. After all, he is a created being, and a created being, by its very definition, is limited. By contrast, his neshamah, which is an actual portion of Hashem, is unlimited. When this element is revealed, a Jew is drawn after Hashem in a way that is beyond the confines of logic.

This is the meaning of the statement of Chazal, “The Jews left Mitzrayim in the merit of emunah.” Chassidus explains that Mitzrayim refers to meitzarim, limitations. Lomdus and reasoning, however great they may be, cannot bring about Yetzias Mitzrayim, because they are part of who he is as a person. A person cannot leave Mitzrayim, because a person is Mitzrayim! If he wants to leave these boundaries, it is only through faith. Faith is unlimited, as it is an expression of his neshamah and of Elokus shining inside him.

This is the idea of the first counting—to reveal this inner depth, in which all Jews are equal.

Taking It In

However, this alone is not enough. Even once his emunah shines within him, it doesn’t change who he is. For example, Tanya explains that even a kal shebekalim—the lowest of the low—has pure faith in Hashem, as demonstrated by the fact that he, too, will readily sacrifice his life for Hashem. But even when he sacrifices his life, he himself hasn’t changed. He hasn’t suddenly become a yerei Shamayim. He remains a kal shebekalim, and possesses all the negative character traits he always had; it’s just that a higher force—his neshamah—has been kindled, awakening in him the feeling that he will never go against his identity as a Jew. The details of his character, however, remain the same.

The same idea applies to when the Jews left Mitzrayim. Although their neshamah was awakened to follow Hashem without calculations, the Gemara says that their zuhama did not cease until Mattan Torah. The negative aspects of their identities were still there as before.

This is why a second census was necessary. The second census took place when the Jews were instructed to build the Mishkan, namely, to work on themselves so that the shechinah would reside in them internally—“Veshachanti besocham.” This was the purpose of this counting—to bring the unlimited depth of the nekudas hayahadus into the details of their existence.

This is why this census was done through Moshe. Moshe is the raya mehemna, which Chassidus explains to mean that he “feeds” us with emunah. Our natural emunah may be abstract (as with the thief who davens to Hashem to help him commit a theft). Moshe takes our emunah and internalizes it within us, so that it will affect our actual character.

Aharon’s Input

This census took place when the Jews were instructed to build the Mishkan. The third census, by contrast, occurred once the Mishkan was already built. Not only were the Jews told to bring the shechinah into the details of their existence, but they actually did so, working in this direction for an entire month.

It’s possible for the neshamah to illuminate a person’s intellect and emotions—not just in an abstract way, but internally—but it can be sensed that his faculties are being influenced by something beyond them. They have not changed on their own accord. The goal is that a person should refine his sechel and midos from the bottom up, so that they themselves have changed.

This was the point of the third counting: to reveal the nekudas hayahadus in such a way that the details of our character are themselves transformed.

This is why Aharon participated in the third census. The Zohar explains that Moshe is shushvina demalka—the escort of Hashem (the King), and Aharon is shushvina dematrunisa—the escort of Bnei Yisroel (the queen). Moshe assists in drawing down the shechinah from Above, while Aharon assists in elevating Bnei Yisroel from below. Aharon accomplishes that a Jew’s self-transformation should not just be the result of a higher force, but the achievement of the person himself.

For further study, see Likkutei Sichos, vol. 8, pp. 1ff.