What is the purpose of the census at the beginning of the book of Numbers, and why is so much detail placed on the encampment of the tribes of Israel around the Tabernacle?
This week’s Torah portion begins the biblical book of Numbers, named after the census taken at the beginning of the parasha. The act of counting individuals seems quite trivial and without meaning. In addition, the census seems to appear out of nowhere. As such, what is the purpose of the census? The Hebrew of the text provides an answer. The literal translation of the phrase, “take a census – se’u et rosh” is “lift up the head.” According to Chasidic thought, the purpose of the census was to reach out to the core of the Jewish soul. When each person is counted, everyone is equal. Each person counts as only one count. No one is counted twice and nobody is skipped. The census was meant to even the playing field and show equality and value of every single individual. One life is not worth more than another. Each person has purpose.
This idea of holiness is emphasized in the encampment of Israel around the Tabernacle. The 13th Century Jewish sage, Ramban (Nachmanides), noticed clear parallels between the mitzvot surrounding the Tabernacle and the Revelation at Sinai. As Sinai represented the place of God’s manifest presence, so too the Tabernacle represented God’s presence on earth. And just as the people camped around the base of Mt. Sinai, so too did the tribes camp around the Tabernacle, symbolizing the centrality of God’s presence among the people of Israel. During the giving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai, the Jewish people entered into a profound covenant with God. The symbolism between a Jewish wedding and the giving of the Torah further solidifies this understanding.
By making the Tabernacle central to the people of Israel, geographically and conceptually, it solidified the Jewish commitment to the centrality of Torah. The centrality of Torah underscored the emphasis for the need of the Living Torah, dwelling in, through, and among the nation of Israel. May we too recognize that same obligation to make God’s presence central to our lives, and may each of us never lose sight of our ultimate purpose.