Let me tell you, taking a census is not an easy thing. I happen to be working as one of the many people around the country who have been temporarily employed by the Census Bureau in order to conduct and complete the 2010 census. I can’t tell you much more than that because Census workers are sworn to strict oaths of confidentiality. Suffice it to say that I have encountered all sorts of interesting situations and interesting people in the process.
Moses had help. In the Torah, it doesn’t really talk about how these counts were conducted. However, maybe G”d learned a thing or two from Yitro’s example to Moses on how to deal with adjudicating so many disputes, by getting help. Here G”d instructs Moses to have the chieftains of the various tribes assist in taking the census. Even with this help, if the numbers of the Israelites were as large as stated, then it was a monumental task to take a census of them all, even excluding women, children, and people above or below certain ages. Yet, even if we accept the interpretation of some scholars who suggest that the numbers were actually much smaller, that the “elef” thought of as 1,000 actually represented a much smaller group, it still would have been a difficult, time-consuming task-even enlisting the help of the chieftains.
Perhaps the chieftains asked clan heads to help, and so on down the line. It’s too bad that the Torah doesn’t go into the mechanism of these ancient census activities. We might have been able to learn a thing or two from them.
The Torah has so much detail about so many things, that I have to wonder why it omits so many other things that are of seeming significance. I’d love to know the details of how a census was conducted in those times. Yes, we have the details of the results of the census, but not of the census mechanism itself (other than knowing that tribal chieftains assisted.)
Perhaps those helping with this ancient census didn’t have to deal with things like college students saying “but my parents put me down on their census form at home” yet knowing how the Israelites were (and the Jewish people still are) there must have been those who chose to be difficult or non-conformists. Of course, there’s a big difference between being able to tell someone “U.S. Law requires you to participate” and “G”d told Moses to count you!” At least I think those words held more power at that time. (I’m not so sure how people would react today if we told them that G”d was requiring them to be counted by the census!)
Which, of course, brings up to the question “why does G”d need a head count?” To which the standard answer is “it’s not for G”d, but for human beings.” For logistical purposes, or to know how many soldiers we could field. Yes, there are all sorts of logistical reasons why Moses and the leadership needed to have a head count (although not having one doesn’t seem to have been that much of a problem so far.) An omniscient G”d would know the head count, and could, theoretically, just tell us. Yet we’re left to fend for ourselves-which, in the end, is probably a good thing. Make things too easy, we start to take them for granted.
Maybe that’s why there are people today here in the US not inclined to make the job of taking a census so easy. We’ve got things pretty easy here. Yet underlying that is a vast bit of logistics and organization. Just as we forget all that’s behind it when we flip a light switch, we often make the same mistake with our government or (tribal) leadership.
Notice that the Torah enumerates. We know the census data. Presumably, everyone knew the data – of not to exact amounts, at least in rough terms. Surely that gave them an appreciation for the enormity of the task of keeping the community alive, safe, and active.
In musings years ago, I spoke of how the census represented the need for each of us to stand up and be counted, and to know where our place in the community is. This year, I ask us to look at the numbers differently. Think not of ourselves, but of all the countless (or rather, counted) others that are part of our community. Think of the enormity of the task of sustaining such a community.
We are but dust and ashes, yet for us the whole world was made. In this duality lies the essence of our existence. Be counted so that you count as yourself. Count all the others in the community, that you may know that you are a only a part of a much larger whole.
Thanks, Judaism. You’ve done it again.
©2010 by Adrian A. Durlester