Parashat Ki Tisa: Every Jew counts

Jews who lack the faith to risk their lives against an enemy may find that their lives are taken by an enemy too small to see without a microscope.

"When you lift up the heads of the children of Israel to count them [in a census], let each one give an atonement offering for his soul when they are counted, so that there not be a plague in the counting of them" (Exodus 30:12). This week's biblical portion seems to be crying out directly to us, the reeling Jewish State just emerging from our first military loss since 1948. What is it that enables a seemingly weak nation to win wars, and how is it that a seemingly strong nation can lose a crucial battle? Just listen to the lesson of the Bible. This opening verse of our portion teaches that it is forbidden to count the Israelites - an activity in which modern Jewish organizations are constantly involved. This prohibition is reinforced by the prophet Hosea (chapter 2), who declares: "The number of the children of Israel shall be as the sands of the sea, which cannot be numbered and cannot be counted…" Even King David learned the power of this command when - against the will of his chief commander Joab - he ordered a census, and the Israelites suffered a plague (II Samuel 24). Why can't we count Jews? What is the meaning of "giving an atonement offering for his soul"? And didn't Hosea realize that we are not now - and have not been at any other time in Jewish history - as numerous as the sands of the sea? The answer is to be found in a strange incident during the judgeship of Gideon against the Midianite enemy (Judges 6-7), which is cited by Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in his Covenant and Conversation. God encourages war against Midian, so Gideon assembles 32,000 soldiers, but God says they are too many for Him to place Midian in their hands (sic)! Gideon allows exemption for those who are frightened and wish to return home, leaving only 10,000. God says there are still too many, and orders Gideon to take his men to a stream and have them drink. Nine thousand seven hundred kneel down to drink and 300 lap up the water with their hands, remaining in an upright position. God has Gideon wage the battle with only those 300, who understood that it is only permissible to kneel before God. Even though the opposing Midianite forces were "innumerable, like the sand at the edge of the sea in large quantity" (Judges 7:12), the small band of 300, waging a surprise nocturnal battle accompanied by terrifying blasts of the shofar, won the day! The message is indubitably clear. A census presupposes that there is strength in numbers, that numbers count. The divine commandment forbidding a census comes to teach that if God is with Israel, then numbers become totally unimportant; to be alone with God is to be with a majority of one. And to be with God first and foremost means that the soldiers, and especially their leaders and the leaders of their nation, believe they are fighting God's battle, the battle of the just and the good and the righteous. To be with God means to be committed to the victory of the cause, to believe in oneself, in one's nation and one's mission. A small band of dedicated people willing to sacrifice their lives to a divine cause - such as a Jewish homeland poised to teach the world about a God of love, morality, pluralism and peace - is automatically as numerous as the sands at the edge of the sea. That is why we defeated all the Arab hordes with a population of barely 600,000 in our War of Independence, while our corrupt leadership claims we are too tired to win wars today with a population of close to six million! Jews who lack the faith to risk their lives against a great enemy in a just war for the sake of peace may well find that their lives are taken by an enemy too small to see without a microscope, God forbid. And if our biblical portion begins by teaching that it is forbidden to count Jews for the sake of comparison to other nations, it continues to teach that nevertheless every Jew in Israel counts. Moses is atop Mount Sinai (or in the heavens) receiving the Decalogue from God, while the panicking Israelites - having expected their prophet to return on the 40th day even though he planned his return for the 41st - are worshiping a golden calf. God commands Moses: "Get down, because your nation whom you took up from the land of Egypt is acting perversely" (Exodus 32:7). The sages of the Talmud expand on God's words: "Get down from your exalted state. I only gave you greatness because of your nation; now that your nation is sinning, what do I need you for?" (B.T. Brachot 32a). Picture the scene: Here is the greatest rabbinical seminary in history, with the Almighty as dean and Moses as disciple. Nevertheless, God explains that He did not enter into a covenant with only the elite scholars; He entered into a covenant with every single Jew, from the elders and judges to the choppers of wood and drawers of water. Just as a Torah scroll is invalidated by a single missing letter, so is historic Israel (Knesset Yisrael) invalidated if even one Jew is disaffected. Moses must go down to his errant nation and lift up each of the Israelites, restoring every Jew to renew the commitment to God's message and mission. Yes, the Jews must not be counted, but each and every one counts! The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.