Behar, Bechukotai – Unlimited Nature of Israel
Parshat Bechukotai begins by stating that when the Torah is studies and observed an abundance of blessing results. “If in my statutes you will walk and my commandments you observe… …and five of you shall pursue one hundred [enemies] and one hundred of you shall pursue ten thousand…” (Leviticus 26:8)
How is it possible that so few can overcome so many? The odds of five against one hundred is overwhelming, and the odds of one hundred against ten thousand is even greater! Even Moses, the great man of faith, was credulous when God promised to feed the entire assembly of Israel with meat, as it was such a tall order. How are we to reconcile the promise of the few overcoming such odds, when that runs so counter to our experiential reason?
The Ramban’s commentary on Bamidbar discusses the census that was taken to determine the number of families in the Israelite camp. Ramban acknowledges the problem with counting Jews by number, and asserts that they were surely counted according to coins collected, just as with the previous census in the book of Exodus. Ramban grapples with the census taken by David during his reign, however, after which thousands of Jews died in a plague. Ramban does not accept that David was not familiar with the danger of counting Jews by number, as the Torah explicitly states that they shall be counted by contributions “so that there will not be a plague among them when counting them.” (Ex. 30:12) The Ramban therefore suggests other failings in David’s census that led to the plague.
In any event, Jews are very careful to avoid counting people directly, instead counting hats, hands or other representative of people rather than the people themselves. It is common, when counting a minyan, that a ten-word verse is recited, one word per person present. If two words remain at the end the counter knows that the group is two short of a minyan.
Why is it so problematic to count Jews? Why is this such a sensitive issue for us? Why did this generate a plague in David’s time? Rabbi Yosef Kalatsky suggests that the answer might lie in the blessings given to the patriarchs. They were assured several times that their descendants would be as numerous as the stars of the heaven, the dust of the earth and the sand of the sea. Ostensibly this blessing never materialized. The people of Israel have always been a tiny minority of the world, very much quantifiable. In fact, the Torah itself guarantees that the people of Israel will always remain the smallest of nations, in apparent contravention to His promise to