Pinchas: Again We’re Counting the Jews? Why?

Statistics can easily dehumanize - a census does the opposite.

Young or old, rich or poor, educated or ignorant, every member of the congregation is unique and NEEDED.


Table for Five: Pinchas

 Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist

“Take a census of the whole Israelite community from the age of twenty years up, by their ancestral houses, all Israelites able to bear arms.” -Num. 26:1-2


Rivkah Slonim, Education Director, Rohr Chabad Center at Binghamton University

We count what is precious and beloved. We count to affirm and to confirm. And at the beginning of the book of Numbers, God teaches that when Jews are counted (nine national censuses are recorded in the Hebrew Bible and the tenth will take place when Moshiach comes) it is for the purpose of elevation, to be uplifted. A census underscores how important each individual is. At the same time, it highlights an essential equality. Each person—no matter how accomplished or unproductive, how learned or untutored —is counted exactly once in the national reckoning.

Chassidus teaches that the counting highlights the essential core of each individual; it spotlights the transcendent aspect that surpasses external expression. It underscores the intrinsic, default, invaluable nature of each Jew that far surpasses individual accomplishment or lack thereof.

The second census mentioned in the book of Numbers comes after the Jews were stricken with a plague. Rashi teaches that God wanted the Jews counted to see who had survived. Alternatively, since God had entrusted the Jews to Moshe when they left Egypt, God now asked for a reckoning as Moshe nears the time of his leave-taking from this world and from his flock. Moshe, their faithful shepherd, who had seen them through thick and thin – who had taken so much abuse from them, all with near perfect equanimity – was perfectly suited for counting them. He could lift them up, yet again, and reveal their true essence upon which he had been focused all along.


Rabbi Chaim Tureff, Pressman Academy and director of STARS Addiction Recovery

Do we ever really enjoy looking back and assessing a situation which went awry? And especially when you are partially or wholly responsible for the mess? Step 4 of Alcoholics Anonymous asks us to take a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves. As anyone who has worked the steps knows, there is a great way to work step 4, affectionately called a Resentment Chart. First you write down your resentment, then write down what was the cause, how it made you feel and then your part in it. These verses have all the makings of a searching and fearless moral inventory.

Rashi asked incredulously why there was a count at this time. He gives two reasons. According to one, after the Jews sinned with the Midianites in the previous chapter and subsequently died, there was a counting. Rashi uses the analogue of a shepherd counting their flock after an attack. According to the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe, aside from the 24,000 Jew’s who died in the plague, which was administered by God, Moshe felt personally responsible for the additional 166,000 deaths at the hands of the judges, since all rulings went through Moshe.

This regret and sense of responsibility would embolden Moshe to be a better leader in the future. Just as someone in recovery needs to look within as they move forward on their journey through sobriety, so Moshe needed to assess and look within as he continued his journey as the leader of the Jewish people.


David Sacks, Torah Podcaster at Torahonitunes.com

A man borrowed money from his neighbor and didn’t repay the loan. The lender saw the Vorker Rebbe visiting the borrower’s house, and thought, “I’ll ask for the money while the Rebbe is there. He won’t have the chutzpah to deny that he owes me in front of the Rebbe.” The Rebbe asked, “Did you take out the loan?” The man said, “Yes, Rebbe but I don’t have the money to repay.” The Rebbe asked, “Do you have any money?” The man said, “I have a few coins, but not nearly the whole sum.” The Rebbe said, “Bring what you have.”

The Rebbe laid the four coins on the table and started counting. “One, two, three, four,” but then, instead of stopping, the Rebbe continued counting the same coins, “five, six, seven, eight,” and then counted them again, “nine, ten, eleven, twelve…” counting and recounting them until he arrived at the amount of the money owed.

The Rebbe put the coins into the lender’s hand and asked, “Do you accept this as full payment for the loan?”  And he said, “Yes, Rebbe, I do.”  The Rebbe blessed him, and the lender became very wealthy.

So, it is with us.

Hashem never stops counting us as a people. Rashi explains this is because we’re so precious to Him. But it’s even deeper than that. Hashem also never stops counting and recounting every mitzvah we do. Even the ones you’ve forgotten about Hashem hasn’t forgotten.


Because Hashem loves us so much.


Lori Shapiro, Rabbi, Open Temple

Parshat Pinchas portrays a Parallel Universe to 2020: call-out culture for sexual misconduct (#MeToo); a mass interest from Israelite men in BIPOC, most specifically, their daughters (#JewsforBIPOC); a plague sent “by God,” taking the lives of many of these men (#COVID19Pandemic); and the awareness that we need to prepare the next generation as they rise to the call to restore and even re-define justice (#BLMProtests).

Just as Parshat Pinchas establishes the rights of all people – including women in inheritance – and sets the course of time observances, our country might benefit from heeding its call, and consider our next steps as we restore our holy container. America, like a desecrated holy of holies, must establish a new era of social reconstruction. Numbers 26:1-2 suggests one answer: mandatory service for all people. At a time when the nature of university life faces existential re-examination, unemployment is at an all-time high, and a display of inspiring images of young people taking to the streets in a Civil Rights Movement for the New Millennium, what better time to revisit The National Youth Agency Act under the WPA, and comprise a plan for mandatory public service for young Americans? Through economic distress and uncertainty, perhaps the time has come for all of us to consider how each and every one of us, from all ancestral homes, must unite and bear arms as spiritual warriors for a Renewed America built upon the holy hosts of all of its people with liberty and justice for all.


Nina Litvak, Writer, Accidental Talmudist Org.

The Book of Numbers begins and ends with a census. The two censuses are similar – both count male Israelites over age 20 who are able to bear arms – but the aftermaths are vastly different. After the first census, the Children of Israel misbehave and blow their chance to enter the Promised Land. After the second census, a new generation is able to conquer the land and start the difficult work of nation-building.

A closer look at the censuses themselves provides a clue to why the first generation failed. The first census is a dry list of numbers laid out in a formal manner. The Israelites are presented as statistics rather than multi-dimensional human beings. The second census feels more personal, mentioning individual names and sometimes pausing to provide more information about specific characters. Paradoxically, when the Israelites are regarded as individuals, they become more effective as a group.

According to Rabbi Avigdor Miller, God made the Jewish people the most diverse of nations because He places a high value on individuality. He loves us for being different from each other! A group of Jews is not a faceless crowd but a community of distinct individuals. Ahavas Yisrael is the commandment to love our fellow Jew – not just for being Jewish, but for being one of a kind. Rav Miller emphasizes our responsibility to look for what’s special in every Jew. Only when we see our fellow as a unique creation of God can we be a strong and healthy nation.

With thanks to Rivkah Slonim, Rabbi Chaim Tureff, David Sacks, Lori Shapiro, and Nina Litvak

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Read more at the Jewish Journal.


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