What was special about the first census of Yisrael?
(1,1) “And Hashem spoke to Moshe in the wilderness of Sinai in the Tent of Meeting, on the first of the second month in the second year of their exodus from the land of Egypt, saying: Raise up the head (take a census) of all the congregation of the Children of Yisrael… ”
The Midrash says that our posuk is explained by the posuk in Tehillim 36:7 “Your righteous acts are like the mighty mountains” – the righteous acts which You perform in the world are as well known as these mountains, “Your judgements are like the vast deep” – the judgements (punishments) which You enact in the world are like the vast deep – just as the vast deep is hidden, so too the judgements which You enact are hidden.
How so? When Yerushalayim was destroyed, it was destroyed on the ninth of Av, but when He showed the impending destruction to Yechezkel, He showed him that it would occur on the twentieth of the month. Why? So as not to publicize on which day it was destroyed.
But when He is coming to glorify Yisrael, He publicizes on which day, in which place, in which month, in which year, and in reference to which important event – “of their exodus from the land of Egypt (Bamidbar 1:1)”. “Saying” – what did He say to them? “Raise up the head (take a census) of all the congregation of the Children of Yisrael (Bamidbar 1:2)”.
At first glance it is hard to see what the Midrash wants to teach us! But it seems that the Midrash had a difficulty with our posuk on one particular point, because the established halachah in Shulchan Aruch, Even Haezer is that when dating any legal document one must first write the year and then the month, like we find many times in the words of Yechezkel. And similarly in parshas Naso it says: “in the second year of their going out of Egypt, in the first month (Bamidbar 9:1)” – behold, it mentions the year before the month, so why here does it change the order – “on the first of the second month in the second year”?
In order to answer this difficulty the Midrash brings this exposition, because behold, in parshas Pinchos when the Children of Yisrael were counted for the second time, it says there neither the date nor the year, so why does it specify the date here?
But according to the teaching of the Midrash here it makes good sense, because Rashi in his first explanation there explains that the census in parshas Pinchos was because since some of them were killed by the plague they needed to be counted again. If so, the second counting was not a praiseworthy thing for Yisrael, but on the contrary it was a disgraceful thing, because if they had not sinned they would not have needed a new census. Thus, since this census was ignominious, the date was not specified as our Midrash teaches.
But this census here in parshas Bamidbar was the first time that they had been counted since leaving Egypt and was connected to their leaving Egypt, and it was a census of honor, as it says: “Raise up the head of all the congregation of the Children of Yisrael”, and therefore the date was specified.
And therefore the Torah reversed the wording and first mentioned the month and afterwards the year, because if it had mentioned the year first it would have said: "in the second year of their exodus from the land of Egypt, on the first of the second month, saying: Take a census of all the congregation of the Children of Yisrael", and the expression “of their exodus from the land of Egypt” would not have been juxtaposed to the statement “Take a census”.
Therefore the Torah did the opposite and said “on the first of the second month in the second year of their exodus from the land of Egypt” so that it would be connected to the subsequent phrase, as if to say that the reason why the date was specified in this census was because this census was connected to the exodus itself, because this was the first census since the exodus and therefore it was an honor and glory like the redemption itself. But the second census which was not an honorable thing was not given a date.
And thus the Midrash concludes: But when He is coming to glorify Yisrael, He publicizes on which day, in which place, in which month, in which year, and in reference to which important event – “of their exodus from the land of Egypt”. “Saying” – what did He say to them? “Raise up the head of all the congregation of the Children of Yisrael” – this statement is connected to the exodus from Egypt and therefore it is fitting to affix to it the date. Everything now makes good sense.
What does the expression “and they were born” mean?
(1,18) “And they assembled all the congregation on the first day of the second month, and they were born (they declared their pedigrees) according to their families, according to their fathers’ houses, according to the number of names, a head count of every male from twenty years old and upward.”
The expression used in this posuk - “they were born according to their families” - is difficult to understand. But behold, in parshas Ki Sisoh Hashem commanded that, “each person shall give an ransom of his soul to Hashem…so that there will be no plague among them when they are counted”, and concludes that this is “to atone for your souls”. Now, it seems to me that the reason why counting people causes a plague can be learned from the teaching of Chazal, that if a person thinks that Hashem should fulfil his request because he prayed to Him, then his sins are checked out to see if he is deserving.
Here too, counting shows the importance of Yisrael - the Midrash explains that by counting them they are compared to the stars, about which it says, “their hosts are brought out by number”, and also shows that they are Hashem’s soldiers. As long as they are not counted, their account is not checked to see what they deserve, but if they start to count them and thereby show that they are very important, then their account is examined to see if they are really worthy to be considered important - to check whether there is an accusation against them, and if there is, a punishment is brought against them, which is the plague. But if they give a ransom for their souls at the time of counting they will achieve atonement, and for this reason the posukim in Ki Sisoh conclude that this is “to atone for your souls”.
Now, people say about a person who is close to death but then recovers that he is like a new creation, because they thought that he would die and had given up hope that he would be around. They say that it is like he has been born anew. So too we find in the Midrash with regard to Rosh Hashanah on the posuk in Bamidbar 29:2 “and you shall make a burnt offering”, that if you went in to be judged and emerged favorably, I will accredit to you as if you became a new creation before Me. And that is because before Rosh Hashanah, the Day of Judgement, it seems very likely that we will emerge guilty, G-d forbid, and thus we are leaning towards death.
Similarly it says in the Yalkut Shimoni in parshas Emor about the posuk in Tehillim 102:18 “He has turned to the prayer of those who cried out, and he did not despise their prayer. Let this be inscribed for the latest generation,” - this refers to those generations which are leaning towards death, “and a created people will praise Y-h” - in the future Hashem will create them as a new creation. We explained in our writings that this refers to Rosh Hashanah, that before they are successful in their judgement they are close to death, and thus when they emerge guiltless they are considered like a new creation.
This is the meaning of the posuk here. If Yisrael does the will of Hashem they are fitting to be called the offspring of the forefathers, to be pedigreed according to their families and their fathers’ houses. But if they do not do the will of Hashem, and do not continue the good deeds of the forefathers, then they are not fitting for this pedigree since they are not similar to them in their deeds, as is explained in the Midrash in several places. Therefore here also, before Moshe counted them each one had many deficiencies and sins, and thus were not fitting to be considered related to their fathers’ families. They were also leaning towards death since counting them would make them liable to have a plague brought against them. But when he counted them and each one gave a ransom for his soul to Hashem their sins were atoned, and they were now successful in their judgement and saved from death. Therefore they were considered as if they were born anew, as new creatures who have never sinned, and thus fitting to be pedigreed after their families and fathers’ houses.
Thus our posuk is saying that with this counting “they were born according to their families” - they were considered as if they had been born anew, as if they never had a blemish, having had their sins atoned for completely. Therefore they could be pedigreed after their families and fathers’ houses.
How does the Torah show that the tribe Zevulun was greater than the tribe of Yissachar?
(2,7) “The tribe of Zevulun; and the prince of the tribe of Zevulun was Eliov the son of Cheilon.”
It seems to me that the reason why it does not say "And the tribe of Zevulun" like it does by the other tribes who are mentioned in third place after the owner of the flag (there were three tribes for each flag, and the tribe that is mentioned first from each group of three was the owner of the flag), is because Yissachar and Zevulun made a partnership in which Zevulun would work and support Yissachar who would learn Torah. And the Midrash on parshas Naso teaches that the one who causes someone to do a good deed is greater than the one who does it, and if not for Zevulun’s financial support, Yissachar could not have been involved in learning Torah.
Therefore it says by the other tribes “and the tribe” to show that they were secondary to the tribe who was the owner of the flag. But the tribe of Zevulun not only had the power of Torah learning like Yissachar, but they were even greater than them because they were the ones who caused the Torah learning. Therefore it says “the tribe of Zevulun” to show that they were like an independent tribe and not secondary to the owner of the flag.
Who are considered to be the descendants of Moshe and Aharon?
(3,1) “And these are the descendants of Aharon and Moshe on the day that Hashem spoke to Moshe on Mount Sinai.”
It seems to me that these posukim are a continuation of the previous section which concluded the counting of Klal Yisrael, because Rashi explains here that whoever teaches the son of his fellow man Torah is considered as if he had given birth to him. According to this, since Moshe Rabbeinu taught Torah to all of Yisrael, all of Yisrael are considered his children.
But Aharon also is considered as if he caused the existence of all Yisrael, because we have written in several places that the reason why Hashem did not find a vessel capable of holding a blessing for Yisrael except for peace, is because someone who is not commanded to keep the Torah can merit blessing even without peace. But Yisrael who received the Torah can only exist through there being peace, because it is impossible for each individual to keep the whole Torah. But if there is peace, then although one person observes a mitzvah and another person observes a different mitzvah, they complete each other, and it is considered as if each of them kept the entire Torah. This is the meaning if the posuk in Tehillim 29:11 “Hashem gave עוז (Torah) to His people, Hashem will bless His people with peace”. That is, when Hashem wanted to give the Torah to Yisrael, He needed to bless them with peace, because without peace it is impossible to observe the Torah. (See the introduction to my sefer Shiyurei Taharah, where you will find a wonderful talk on this.)
Now, it is well known that Aharon excelled in loving peace and pursuing peace, and also in bringing people close to the Torah, but what is the connection between these two traits? But we now understand that if there was no peace amongst them, then they would be distant from the Torah, because each person would be missing many things from his observance of the Torah. But if there is amongst them peace and unity, then each one completes his fellow man. Therefore Chazal said that Aharon pursued peace, and through this he brought them close to the Torah.
According to this, all of Yisrael were the children of Moshe, because he learned with them the Torah, but also the children of Aharon, since without the peace that Aharon made the Torah that Moshe taught would be very deficient. Thus Moshe and Aharon caused the completion of Yisrael’s receiving the Torah, and so are the children of both of them.
Therefore, this posuk refers to what was written earlier - the counting of Klal Yisrael, and after the counting was completed the Torah wrote “And these” - all these who were just mentioned, became “the descendants of Aharon and Moshe on the day that Hashem spoke to Moshe on Mount Sinai”. That is, from when Hashem gave the Torah to Yisrael, all Yisrael mentioned above became the descendants of Aharon and Moshe. Because since Yisrael received the Torah they needed to learn it, and through Moshe’s learning with them and Aharon making peace, the purpose of their receiving the Torah was complete, and thus they became the children of both of them.
The next posuk says “And these are names of the children of Aharon”, that is, his actual children, “Nadav the firstborn, and Avihu, and Elazar, and Itamar” and the posuk after that repeats “These are the names of the children of Aharon, the anointed Kohanim”. The first posuk which says “and these” comes to teach us that we should not think that these children are Aharon’s alone and not Moshe’s, but rather the children of both of them, as we have explained. And the following posuk teaches that the children are considered the descendants of Aharon alone only with regard to their being Kohanim, which comes from Aharon alone.
And this is what the posuk is saying: “These are the names of the children of Aharon, the anointed Kohanim" - the children which the Torah ascribed to Aharon alone were only the anointed Kohanim, "whom he consecrated to serve as Kohanim”, whom Aharon consecrated to be fitting to be Kohanim in his merit. In this Aharon alone was the cause, but in the matter of their Torah they were included in all Yisrael and also called the children of Moshe.