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Census Versus Metaphysical Existence

This week’s Torah reading, Parshat Ki Tisa, begins with a very strange admonishment by God. “When you take a census of the Children of Israel, each man shall give Hashem an atonement for his soul so there will not be a plague among them when counting them.” What is wrong with taking a count of the men? Why do they need to make atonement or be punished with a plague?

Taking a census has many practical purposes. Through a census, our government, for example, can determine where best to use its resources and wealth to promote the general welfare of the citizenry. Perhaps as a result of the count, a new high school is built or a highway is constructed to connect emerging urban centers. Political redistricting often results after a census giving the populace better representation in Congress. Still another purpose may be for the government leaders to find out how many people are eligible for military service, welfare programs and other social services such as Medicare or social security. Each of these reasons for a census is rational.

Why then did the Torah say, “When you take a census, make atonement for your soul so a plague does not occur?” If a nation senses peril in the future, what is so bad or wrong with assessing its strength? No less a person than King David made this mistake and suffered the national consequence of the outbreak of a plague.

My mentor and “rebbe muvhak,” (the one from whom I learned the majority of my Torah) HaRav Yisroel Chait, offered the following insight. It is true that a census makes very practical and rational sense. In fact, not to do so may at times be foolish. However, this process is correct for every nation other than the Nation of Israel. Why is that so? To ask another way, what is the cause for this principle of the Torah?

All nations exist under the “general providence of God.” This realm of divine providence operates through the fantastic laws of nature that govern the way the universe works. Every individual and every nation is subject to them. All human affairs, to be successful, must take them into account. No success is possible when these laws are disregarded. So, for example, if one nation’s army is superior to another’s, barring any other factors, we know the outcome of the war. Of course, other factors also need to be taken into the calculation by the military leaders for the conquest to be successful. Not to consider the weather conditions, or terrain, for example, may lead to disastrous results. Psychological factors must also be considered such as the will of people to fight in defense of their homeland.

While this is true for all nations, God is telling us in the opening verses of this week’s Torah reading that for the Nation of Israel a different realm is in operation. This realm is the “metaphysical” realm. “Meta” means above, beyond, or other than. God is telling us that the providence involved with the needs and survival of the Nation of Israel is a metaphysical providence, one that supersedes even God’s providence of the natural world. So for example, when the nation was in need of food for 40 years in the desert, the natural laws were superseded and God sustained the people with manna from heaven. Let me explain.

The very bringing of the Nation of Israel into physical reality is the underlying theme of the entire Torah. The existence of the Nation of Israel is, in part, behind the entire purpose of the initial creation. The Nation of Israel, then, isn’t just another nation in the family of nations. Some nations come into existence and while others cease to exist. Not so for the Nation of Israel. Their existence is part of the very fabric of the universe. Their existence is secure, albeit at times tenuous. Their existence has a metaphysical cause beyond the natural realm.

It is this concept that was invoked by Moshe in his prayer and request to God after the incident of the Golden Calf. “If Your Presence does not go with us, do not take us up from here. …Then I and Your people will be distinguished from every other nation on the face of the earth.” (Shemot: 33:15-17) God answered Moshe in the affirmative. This unique relationship will continue.

Here in this week’s reading, God is telling us that when we feel insecure and need to take a census, this feeling stems from considering ourselves no different than any other nation. The decision on the part of our leaders to take a census represents the national feeling. When this happens, the entire nation needs atonement for failing to relate to God on the higher, metaphysical plain.

What reminds us of the reality and truth of this idea? First, if we do need to take a census, we must give atonement for our souls for forgetting the fundamental idea of the different nature in our national existence. And if we go ahead and do the census without first giving an atonement, we are subject to a plague whose source is itself unnatural. For taking a census, does any other nation suffer a plague or calamity? Sometimes the medicine we must take to get better is strong and distasteful, but it is curative. So too can be the lesson of our metaphysical existence.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Robert Kaplan