A Tidbit of Torah – Parshat B’midbar 5784

“Se’u et rosh…” “Take a census of the whole Israelite community by the clan of its ancestral houses, listing the names, every male, head by head.
B’midbar/Numbers 1:2

The Israelites have just celebrated the first anniversary of their liberation. Sefer B’midbar, the Book of Numbers, returns our attention to the Israelite wanderings in the wilderness and opens with the command to take a census of the Israelites. Chieftains of each tribe are named to assist Moshe and Aharon in creating an accounting of those men over the age of twenty—fighting men—in each tribe who will make up the Israelite army as it sets out on its journey to the Promised Land. The Torah uses an identical formula in presenting the results of each tribe, concluding with the number of soldiers available. This leads to the spatial arrangement of the Israelite encampment, with three tribes designated for each side of the camp, surrounding an inner square made up of the three Levitical clans and the family of Aharon, the Kohanim. At the very center was the Mishkan, the moveable sanctuary which represented the Divine Presence in their midst.

Since transforming the Israelites from slaves to free people and a “nation of priests” represents the central mission of the entire Exodus experience even the encampment’s layout, in all its detail must serve this spiritual enterprise. There is a subtle indication of this within God’s command to count the Israelites within the verse cited at the top.

If we examine the Hebrew words above carefully, we find something quite noteworthy. The Hebrew words se’u et rosh do not translate literally as “take a census”. While understood by traditional commentators and translators through the ages to mean count the people, this expression literally means “raise the head”. What does the Torah intend by asserting that when counting the people there is also an implicit obligation to raise, or elevate, the head of every Israelite?

Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz, a late sixteenth-century Eastern European sage also known by the name of his greatest work, The Sh’lah, explains:

​​​​​​​The Torah uses the word rosh here, for what we translated as number. The word rosh, literally head, teaches us the importance of the Jewish people, that each is a head, each is important in himself. Each Jew must accordingly feel the great responsibility he has for all of his actions, for every action of his can improve the condition of the world, or Heaven forbid, make it deteriorate.”

When connected to the census of the Israelites, this unusual usage communicates God’s hopes and aspirations for the people, an affirmation that each one of us plays a unique role in God’s world and a specific destiny to fulfill as part of the Jewish people. Building our Jewish communities entails elevating the head of every Jewish person, thereby making her/him feel valued and recognized. Being a part of the Jewish community then and today should be an uplifting experience that brings us closer to God, Torah, one another, and closer to better able to fulfill our divine destiny.

Shabbat Shalom –

Rabbi David M. Eligberg