The following article is reprinted with permission from the Orthodox Union.
It is surprising that the sometimes tumultuous book of B’midbar commences with such a prosaic passage as the taking of a census:
And Hashem spoke to Moshe in the wilderness of Sinai, in the Tent of Meeting, on the first day of the second month, in the second year of their coming out from the land of Egypt, saying: Take a census of all the congregation of the Children of Israel by their families, by their fathers’ houses, with the number of names, every male by their head count (B’midbar 1:1-2).
Censuses, here and later (chapter 26), give this book its Rabbinic name Pekudim (accounts), and its English name (based on the Septuagint), Numbers. Nevertheless, when we look ahead to what will transpire in this book–the conflicts, the rebellions, the instabilities and the crushing disappointments–we are struck by the uncharacteristic placidity of its opening section, discussing the census and the careful ordering of the encampments.
It is particularly hard to understand why B’midbar opens this way when we consider that it could have been otherwise. A close reading reveals that the Torah changes conventional chronology in order to start with the census. Rashi, Ibn-Ezra, (12th-century Spain) and Ramban (Nachmanides) agree that, at the beginning of the Israelites’ second year in the wilderness, the seven days of ordaining the Kohanim (priests) (Vayikra, chapter 8) and the 12 days of dedication of the altar (B’midbar, chapter 7) all precede the census.
And, while it is true that there is disagreement among the major commentaries about when exactly these days began–whether they overlapped, and when in the first month (Nisan) they ended–it is clear that the opening of B’midbar occurs on the first day of the second month (Iyar), in the second year. In addition, a later section of B’midbar, discussing the Pesach–offering in the wilderness (9:1-8), is said during Nisan. Chapters 1 through 4 should therefore follow chapters 7 and 9, yet they precede them.
Of course, as our sages teach, "There is no earlier or later in the Torah" (Pesachim 6b; Sifri Beha’alotecha 9:13), meaning that the Torah is not necessarily chronological. In fact, the beginning of B’midbar is cited as the source of this principle. Torah is not essentially a book of history; it is above history. Its main focus is its spiritual and moral teachings, and it uses history to teach these lessons. But, the question remains: what is the lesson to be learned by such a blatant altering of the timetable at the beginning of B’midbar, an otherwise rather chronological book?
One purpose might be to demonstrate that national sin produces national catastrophe. Sforno (R. Ovadia ben Yaakov Sforno, c. 1470-c. 1550) on B’midbar 9:1 explains that the beginning of the book of B’midbar is a realization of the commandment "and your camp shall be holy" (Devarim 23:15). After the formation and purification of the camp, the Torah recounts four events (chapter 7-10: dedicating the altar, initiating the Levites, offering the Pesach sacrifice and traveling obediently into the wilderness), in the merit of which the Children of Israel should have entered the land immediately, had not their sins (chapter 11-12), especially the sin of the Meraglim (scouts) (chapter 13-14), necessitated their remaining in the wilderness.
In this context, we might mention Malbim’s reading that the census was aimed at classifying the Children of Israel according to specific family divisions within the tribes, under flags and following their tribal leaders. Clearly establishing the ancestry of the Children of Israel caused the Shechinah (divine presence) to rest in their midst (cf. Kiddushin 70b, Yalkut Shimoni I:684).
The eventual apportionment of the land of Israel would be according to these tribal divisions. Thus, the wilderness (which gives this book its name B’midbar) should have been a very short transitional stage, during which the Torah’s ideal society was secured–a "dress rehearsal" for life in the land of Israel. Instead, the generation of the Exodus spent the rest of its existence in the wilderness. The book of B’midbar chronicles a tragedy of thwarted opportunities.
Another answer might be alluded to in the midrash (B’midbar Rabba 1:5 Tanchuma Ki Tissa, 16) and explained by the Kli Yakar (R. Ephraim Shlomo of Luntshitz, 1550-1619). The giving of the Torah is compared to the betrothal of a humble but noble bride to a king; the dedication of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) is compared to their wedding ceremony. Now that they begin their life together, the precise details of the ketubbah (marriage document) are listed, including the place and time:
In the wilderness of Sinai, in the Tent of Meeting, on the first day of the second month, in the second year.
In addition, the king announces the bride’s aristocratic lineage. "Take a census" translates literally as "lift the head:" this announcement elevates the status of the Children of Israel before the eyes of the world. As Rashi states in his first comment on this book, Hashem counts them as an expression of His great love for them.
However, during the course of this book of turmoil and wanderings, this troubled but loving marriage will suffer many severe tribulations. Starting with a description of that loving relationship will help them return to their original state of tranquility. It will strengthen their ultimate reconciliation, and deepen their love.
T. S. Eliot, in "Little Gidding," (V) writes:
What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from. . . .
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
We need to remember our youthful "marriage." Before we are reminded of our infidelities–the golden calf, the scouts–which all but destroyed the glory of the day when we pledged our troth, we need to remember the profound love that we and Hashem have for one another.
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