The Nation of Israel
This week, we begin a new book, the Book of Bamidbar; it begins:
And God spoke to Moshe in the Sinai Desert in the Tent of Meeting, on the first of the second month in the second year after leaving Egypt, saying ..." (Bamidbar 1:1)
So we see that the Jews are still in the desert, awaiting their glorious march to the Promised Land. Of course, we know how this ends -- they will never enter the Land of Israel, that privilege falling to their children in the following generation.
The Torah continues:
"Count the heads of all the community of the Children of Israel, according to families, to their fathers households; count the males ... from the age of twenty and above, all those who would go out for battle in Israel." (Numbers 1:2-3)
The Divine imperative to count the people at this juncture must be understood. This is not the first time that the Jews have been counted since leaving Egypt. Rashi explains:
Out of love [God] counts them at every point. When they left Egypt they were counted, when they fell (died) in the (sin of) the Golden Calf, they were counted to know how many remained. When it was time for the Shechinah, God's Presence, to envelop them they were counted; on the first of the month of Nissan the Tabernacle was erected, and on the first of the month of Iyar they were counted. (Rashi 1:1)
Rashi is concerned with the motivation to count the Jews yet again, this being the third time within a year that a census is taken, and Rashi explains that God's love for the Jews is the reason why He counts us time and time again. While not discounting the explanation of Rashi, I believe there is another explanation, which may be connected with the similarity in the results of each count.
THE SAME RESULT
Each time the people are counted, the result is 600,000, more or less; in fact, the number 600,000 has become a descriptive term for the totality of the Jewish people. On a mystical level, the number 600,000 is identified with the number of souls comprising the Nation of Israel. The Talmud teaches that the arrival of the Messiah will transpire when all these souls are "complete."
The son of David will not come until all the souls in the body are complete. (Yevamot 62a)
In fact, the source goes even further, implying that the Nation of Israel is one body with 600,000 parts. That poses one obvious problem: virtually every generation from the Exodus onward outnumbers 600,000, yet this number is still used to describe the totality of the Jewish people.
Are we to assume that others -- men over 60 or under 20, or women -- were of no significance?
Even in the desert there were more than 600,000 people; there, the number 600,000 refers to the number of men between the ages of 20 and 60. All others were not included in the tally. Are we to assume that others -- men over 60 or under 20, or women -- were of no significance?
The Zohar carries this numeric parallel even further, stating that there are 600,000 letters in the Torah which are meant to parallel the 600,000 souls. (See Zohar Hadash Shir HaShirim 74d.)
Another mystical source, the Migaleh Amukot, expands on this idea:
Every one of Israel has for his soul one letter of the 600,000 letters of the Torah ... Indeed, Israel is an acronym for yesh shishim ribo otiyot laTorah, "there are 600,000 letters in the Torah." (Section 186)
One difficulty which arises with these teachings is the fact that when the letters of the Torah are counted, there are found to be only 304,805, only slightly more than half of the number we expected to find. One way of resolving this contradiction would be to cite another mystical tradition which is found in the introduction to the Ramban's Commentary to the Torah (for the actual source see Yerushalmi Shkalim 6:1) which refers to a primordial Torah which preceded the creation of the world which was written in black and white fire.
BLACK AND WHITE FIRE
We may conclude that the letters that we see on the parchment represent the black fire, while the parchment on which the words are written, or the space between the letters, represent the white fire. Thus, we may account for the missing letters with these white letters, which would fill in the count to 600,000.
Alternatively, others explain that many letters of the Torah are compounds of other letters; for example, an aleph can be broken down to two yuds and a vav. (For a full discussion on this topic see R' Reuven Margoliot in "Hamikra vi Hamosora" chapter 12.)
The Jewish people as a whole equal 600,000 souls, with one letter of the Torah for each soul.
When we merge these teachings we conclude that the Jewish people as a whole equal 600,000, with one letter of the Torah for each soul. This explanation may help resolve our problem with the number of people in reality far surpassing 600,000. We may now conclude that there are 600,000 souls -- even though there are more than 600,000 people: more than one person can share the same "soul root."
The people who parallel the letters in the Torah are actually greater in numbers, while the number of letters is actually less. It may take many people working together to accomplish a single aspect of the Torah. The number 600,000, then, is an expression of the totality of the Nation of Israel in its spiritual capacity, which in a sense mirrors the Torah.
That being so, we can appreciate the need for the various countings. The first counting takes place after leaving Egypt, at the moment the Jews become a nation.
Joseph and the brothers entered Egypt as a family, a clan, perhaps a tribe, but it was a nation that marched out. We have seen (in Parshat Vayetze) that part of the disagreement between Jacob on the one hand, and Shimon and Levi on the other, was their reaction to the rape of Dina. Jacob saw his children as a family, or tribe, while Shimon and Levi saw them as a nation, or at least as the forerunners of a nation, whose actions affect the collective consciousness of future generations.
The Yalkut Shimoni spells this out in clear terms which have direct impact on our topic:
Jacob said to Shimon and Levi, "You have endangered me for I am small in number .. There is a tradition among the Canaanites that in the future they will fall into the hands of my children." But God said to him, "Not until the land is liberated and inherited by 600,000." (Yalkut Shimoni Vayishlach section 135)
Not until the Jews are a bona fide nation -- represented by 600,000 -- will the Land of Israel be theirs. The Jews relied upon the Exodus to indicate that national identity had been achieved. Or, in the words of a different passage in the Yalkut:
Leaving Egypt was with 600,000; entering the Land was with 600,000; furthermore, the Messianic Age will consist of 600,000. (Yalkut Shimoni Hoshea 518)
The Yalkut is teaching that the spiritual identity of the Jewish people is made of 600,000 parts; therefore, until this identity had been achieved, the Exodus from Egypt was an impossibility. Furthermore, entering the Land of Israel in either Biblical or eschatological times is only possible if the Jews number at least 600,000.
It is fascinating to note that in 1948 there were approximately 600,000 Jews in the land.
It is fascinating to note that in 1948 there were approximately 600,000 Jews in the land, and it was not until close to 1967 that there were 600,000 males of fighting age. In accordance with a teaching in the Zohar that Jerusalem will only be united when 600,000 males are in the land.
For this same reason, the Jews were counted after the sin of the Golden Calf. If 600,000 did not remain, those who survived would not be considered the Nation of Israel until they once again numbered 600,000; the historical clock would have been put on hold.
Quite simply, the Jews cannot enter the Land of Israel unless they number at least 600,000. By this point in history, the Torah had been given, the Tabernacle built, and the Shechinah rested on the people. Nothing else needed completion except for the march into the Holy Land.
Of course, that is not the way that the story unfolds, but the further wanderings in the desert were not part of the original plan, and came only as a result of further intrigue in the desert.
THE FORMATION OF THE MARCH
Another teaching in this week's Torah portion provides insight. We read a description of the formation in which the Jews are to encamp and march. The model for the formation was taken from the only other time that the people marched to Israel, following the death of Jacob. According to the Midrash, on his deathbed Jacob commanded his children:
"Take heed that no stranger touches the bed so that the Shechinah not be expelled, rather in this particular order you are to carry me ... this is the manner which you are destined to do in the desert ..." Bereishit Rabba 100:2)
The parallel between Jacob's death scene and the formation in the desert is highly significant. On the basic level, this confirms that the time to march to Israel has indeed arrived, therefore God reveals at this juncture the particular formation conceived by Jacob.
Furthermore, there is a fascinating parallel to be drawn between Jacob and the Ark containing the Tablets. Ya'akov is described as yoshev ohalim, "one who dwells in the tents," a description understood to portray Jacob as representing Torah. Now, even in death, Jacob is compared to a Torah scroll, just as his coffin, his ark, is compared to the Ark of the Covenant in the Tabernacle.
In this Midrash Jacob represents the Torah in a very real sense. On a deeper level, Jacob's insistence that no stranger join the entourage seems unusual, but when we recall that this march in the time of Jacob serves as the prototype for the march in the future -- of the 600,000 Jews, of all of Israel, the parallel becomes instructive.
No strangers are to join the ranks, for this would cause the Shechinah to be expelled. This is all the more poignant when we look at the larger picture. The nation which consists of 600,000 souls is paralleled to the Torah which has 600,000 letters. A Torah with too many or too few letters is invalid. Even one half of a letter gone amiss renders the Torah unfit for use.
So, too, with the Nation of Israel. With either one person missing or one person too many, the glorious march to Israel cannot begin. One extra person can have severe mystical implications.
THE MIXED MULTITUDE
We are taught that a large number of Israelites perished in Egypt during the plague of darkness. Only those whose souls paralleled one of the letters of the Torah left Egypt. Only those souls can enter Israel. The traditional sources point out that there was an erev rav, "a mixed multitude" or "hangers on," who did leave Egypt with the Jews. Apparently, this is precisely what concerned Jacob. The tragic consequences of the existence of the erev rav are well known -- the Golden Calf, as well as other indiscretions, are blamed on them.
One extra or missing letter -- one extra or missing soul -- and the Divine plan may be altered.
Jacob, who represents Torah, is concerned lest an extra letter find its way into the walking, breathing entity known as Am Israel, the Nation of Israel. One extra or missing letter and the Divine plan may be altered, just as one letter, or even part of one letter, missing can invalidate a divine book.
The erev rav did join and march with the Nation of Israel, and the Divine plan was changed, but that story is told in the following Torah portions. Our lesson for this week is that many Jews are needed to realize the Divine plan; there are indeed far more that 600,000 Jews, and all are vitally necessary for the creation of a whole entity.
Indeed, there are 600,000 core souls who represent the division of labor, the different responsibilities, and ultimately the different aspects of the Divine spirit contained in each one uniquely. Only a merger of these entities will allow the Jewish people to realize their Divine mission. For the Jewish people are a reflection of the Torah, with its 600,000 entities.
The Torah is the aspect of the mind of God which He reveals to us. The Zohar encapsulates this teaching in one sentence: "The Nation of Israel, the Torah and God are all one."
When the Jewish people reflect the Torah, which in turn reflects God, our mission can be accomplished.