Counting Sheep

B”H

Shiur for parashas Bamidbar (Numbers 1:1 – 4:20) 5780

“Take ye the sum of all the congregation of the children of Israel.”

– Numbers 1:2, JPS 1917 Tanach

“The literal translation of the above mentioned verse would be, ‘Lift up the head of the entire assembly.” This rendering has two potential meanings: that the people would be lifted up to a higher spiritual status or brought down by their own unworthiness. The phrase suggests either upliftment, if B’nei Yisrael were worthy in G-d’s eyes, or chastisement, if they were not acting in accordance with His expectations of them (Ramban).

The sages note that there were nine times recorded in the Tanach, whereupon a census was taken. According to their rendering of scripture, there will be a tenth census taken in the days of Moshiach. “The flocks again pass under the hands of him that counteth them, saith the L-RD” (Jeremiah 33:13, JPS 1917 Tanach). According to the rendering of this verse by the Targum Yonaton, the verse reads, “by the hand of Moshiach.”

The world is judged four times a year; the sages envision the judgment that occurs on Rosh HaShannah, as a census being taken, likened to counting sheep: “On Rosh HaShana all creatures pass before Him like sheep [benei maron], as it is stated: ‘He Who fashions their hearts alike, Who considers all their deeds’ (Psalms 33:15)” (Talmud, tractate Rosh HaShannah 16a, sefaria.org).

The mashal (parable) of counting the sheep also points towards the final judgment, when all of mankind will be judged. “For I [know] their works and their thoughts; [the time] cometh, that I will gather all nations and tongues; and they shall come, and shall see My glory” (Isaiah 66:18).

“Therefore will I save My flock, and they shall no more be a prey; and I will judge between cattle and cattle. And I will set up one shepherd over them, and he shall feed them, even My servant David; he shall feed them, and he shall be their shepherd. And I the L-RD will be their G-d, and My servant David prince among them” (Ezekiel 34:22-24, JPS 1917 Tanach).

parashas Bamidbar

weekly reading: the Census

B”H

Shiur for parashas Vayakhel-Pekudei 5779

When thou takest the sum of the children of Israel, according to their number, then shall they give every man a ransom for his soul unto the L-Rd.”

– Exodus 30:12, JPS 1917 Tanach

A unique perspective on the census taken of B’nei Yisrael involves the consideration of how the silver from the census – a half shekel from every man – was actually used in the construction of the Mishkan (Tabernacle). First of all, let us consider the amount of silver that was taken: “And the silver of them that were numbered of the congregation was a hundred talents, and a thousand seven hundred and three-score and fifteen shekels, after the shekel of the sanctuary” (Exodus 38:25, JPS 1917 Tanach).

The one hundred talents of silver was used for ninety-six sockets at the base of the planks that served to make the walls of the Mishkan, plus four sockets for the partition screen (see scripture). The remaining silver amounted to less than a talent; this was also used to build the mishkan. The exact amount needed was the exact amount collected from B’nei Yisrael when the census had previously been taken. Ohr HaChaim comments that this was a miracle.

Additionally, the census is referred to as an atonement for the souls of B’nei Yisrael. Commentary explains that the half shekels that were taken from each indvidual served as atonement for their souls, specifically for the sin of the golden calf.

Sforno draws another insight, noting that the nature of a census itself requires an atonement for the souls of the individuals counted. He explains, that the mentioning of a head count of people is an oblique reminder of mans sin, his guilt (commentary on 30:12, sefaria.org). In his estimation, humans change from day to day, in regard to their moral status. Therefore, they are not the same when counted each time.

It is as if they are scrutinized by the Almighty at the time of a census, and may fall short of His standard, namely, the commandments, at the time of counting. Therefore, the half shekel served as an atonement for their moral deficiencies at the time of scrutiny.

Inasmuch that these half shekels were used to build the mishkan, another insight can be drawn, in regard to the importance of atonement. The Mishkan served as a dwelling place for H’Shem; yet, its purpose emphasized a central structure where offerings for atonement would be made on behalf of B’nei Yisrael.

May it be H’Shem’s will that when we are scrutinized, we will be judged favorably. May His attribute of mercy override His attribute of judgment.