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In this week’s reading of the Torah, almost the entire text is devoted to a count of the Jewish people as they encamped in the desert of Sinai. Later in this same book of the Torah, a further count  will be taken and recorded. This idea of taking a census of the population of the nation is easily understood and accepted in our society as well.  Currently almost all countries and societies conduct a census on a regular basis.

However, reading further in the Bible, we see that the kings and leaders of the Jewish people in the Land of Israel also took, at the very least, a partial census of the people at certain given opportunities. Yet, even though the results of the census here in the desert of Sinai is given to us in minute detail and exact numbers, the later counts of the Jewish people, when they resided in the Land of Israel, never, except for military formations, was recorded for us in exact numbers.
It is as though the numbers of those later governmental counts are seemingly immaterial and irrelevant to the core story of the Jewish people. So, why then does the counting of the Jewish people and its resultant numbers play such a dominant role in the text of the Torah? And this is especially difficult to deal with when the Torah itself tells us that we will never be a nation of large numbers of people but that rather we will always be “the fewest in number…..”
Every individual has a worth and a value no matter the time in which he lives or where he is located on this earth. Nevertheless, there is a difference between the count of a dwelling in isolation and under supernatural conditions in a trackless desert, and the count of the people living in its own country and attempting to develop its own society and culture under “normal” circumstances.
In the desert, everything was yet theoretical and potential but not yet real and practical. Therefore people were numbers and to a certain extent they were all absolutely equal. But when the Jewish people arrived in the Land of Israel, the task of nation-building required – and continues to require - the assignment of different tasks to different people.
A living society is constructed by many different forces and ideas - and this presupposes many different people who are not mere numbers but rather independent thinkers and doers. In prisons and enforced labor camps, people were only numbers. In a vibrant dynamic society, we are not interested in the numbers as much as we are interested in the tasks fulfilled, the dreams being dreamt and the independence of human thought and creativity.
In this scenario, we do not see the actual numbers of the count as being vital to the task at hand. Naturally, numbers and size of population are important. But they are only limited factors in defining the greatness of the people and the strength of the nation. No longer living in a desert, in exile, not living in theory but in practice, each of us has to apply one’s self to the task before us here in Israel.
Shabbat shalom
Rabbi Berel Wein 

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