Adapted by Ron Kleinman
Translated by Kaeren Fish
"Take the sum of all the congregation of Bnei Yisrael…" (Bamidbar 1:2). Rashi explains: "Since they are so beloved to Him, He counts them all the time." Likewise, when the children of Israel are enumerated at the opening of Sefer Shemot, he comments: "To express their dearness, that they are compared to stars… as it is written, 'Who brings out their host by number, calling each by name.'" Thus, we may say that counting is undertaken out of love.
On the other hand, we find it written concerning David (Divrei Ha-yamim 21:1): "Satan stood against Israel, and provoked David to number Israel." This census resulted in a catastrophic plague. Ramban (Bamidbar 1:2) explains that God was angry at David for counting the nation needlessly, "only to bring joy to himself, that he ruled over a great many people."
Counting, then, raises a problem. We count things that are alike; hence, counting implies that each item is equal. People are not to be counted. Each person is unique.
It is written, "Each man by his banner, according to his otot" (Bamidbar 2:2). "Otot" refers to insignia, but literally it means also "letters;" hence the idea that each individual has his own letter in the Torah.
In his commentary to Mishlei (16:4), the Vilna Gaon explains that the task of the prophets among Am Yisrael was to instruct each person as to his unique path in Torah and in Divine service. Many different paths exist; "Your commandments are exceedingly expansive" (Tehillim 119:96).
Nevertheless, Am Yisrael in the desert needed to be counted – an act emphasizing their common denominator. The very formation and start of the nation required its unification and consolidation.
I often refer to a teaching from the Yerushalmi Talmud, at the beginning of Massekhet Peah:
The generation of King David was entirely righteous, but because there were slander-mongers among them, they would go out to war and suffer casualties. This is what David means when he says (Tehillim 57), "My soul is among lions; I lie down among those who are aflame" – this refers to Avner and Amasa, Doeg and Achitofel, the people of Ke'ila, etc.
The generation of King Achav, on the other hand, was an idolatrous one. But since there were no slander-mongers among them, they went out to war and were victorious.
There is terrible hatred today between the various groups and sectors of our nation. Our era is like the era of David, with mutually hostile camps: the camp of Avner and the camp of Doeg, the camp of the people of Ke'ila, etc. Some time ago I had a conversation with someone close to Charedi circles, and he insisted that the hatred within each camp is greater than the hatred between them. They radiate hatred towards us, and we respond in kind. We will end up, heaven forefend, in a situation of Kamtza and Bar-Kamtza: a very great love for fellow Jews – but only those who are like us, people of our circle. Anyone who is not part of our camp should kindly keep to himself.
Rav Kook used to say that the Temple was destroyed because of baseless hatred, and it will be rebuilt only by virtue of baseless love.
We dare not close our eyes to what is going on around us. A person must react to his environment, but at the same time we must preserve and guard the unity of the nation, and avoid responding to hatred with more hatred.
(This sicha was delivered on leil Shabbat parashat Bamidbar 5747 .)