Sefer Bamidbar in English is called “The Book of Numbers” and there is a good reason for this. We see throughout the entire book that there are many numbers. (In Yoma and Menahot, we also find that they refer to Bamidbar as “numbering”.) Sefer Bamidbar begins with the counting of Am Israel. This takes place on the first month of the second year since leaving Egypt and, in a few week’s time in Parashat Pinchas towards the end of journey in the desert, we find another counting of Am Israel.
Let us take a closer look at the numbers in the beginning of the journey and at the end. In Parashat Bamidbar, we come to a grand total of 603,550 men over the age of twenty. (This counting appears twice, once in chapter 1 and again in chapter 2, and it is worthwhile understanding why we see the counting of Am Israel one chapter after the other.) In Parashat Pinchas, at the end of the journey through the desert thirty eight years later, we come to a grand total of 601,730 men over the age of twenty.
How could it be that there are fewer men over the age of twenty thirty eight years later? One would think that over time there would be more not less. Was there such a low rate of births? Was there a high rate of deaths? If we take a closer look at the numbers, we find that a few tribes were reduced significantly: Shimon from 59,300 to 22,200, Gad from 45,650 to 40,500, Naphtali from 53,400 to 45,400, Ephraim from 40,500 to 32,500 and Reuben from 46,500 to 43,730. The one that stands out most is Shimon and this needs some kind of explanation as well.
A very simple explanation can be seen with the events that precede the counting of Am Israel in Pinchas. As we learn from the end of Parashat Balak, there was a plague that killed twenty four thousand people. Am Israel sinned and the Zimree Ben Salu, one of the heads of the tribe of Shimon, headed the event. So it comes as no surprise that Shimon lost so many men from the time of the counting in Bamidbar to the time in Pinchas.
This gives some explanation to the difference in numbers but still does not fully solve the problem as, over the course of thirty eight years, there would surely be a higher number of men than that. After all, the Jews were never held to a low birth rate.
We must, therefore, take note of a few additional events that occurred throughout the travels of Bnei Israel in the desert. Upon the return of the spies from the land of Canaan, Bnei Israel realized their mistake and tried to go into the land if Israel without God’s permission. However, the Amalekites attacked them. Although the Torah does not tell us of any dead, we can assume that there were more than one or two who died during this event. Let us not forget the events of Korach. There we learn that besides the people that were swallowed when the earth opened, another fourteen thousand and seven hundred people died.
The two events of counting Bnei Israel are, thereore, completely understandable. The first was before they began the journey into the land of Canaan (which, at this point, was not supposed to take forty years). There is a need to know how many soldiers there were in order to arrange how the Bnei Israel travelled. The second one in Pinchas, before the people entered the land of Israel, there was a need to know how many fighting men there were and how many people there were in each family so the country can be divided up accordingly. As we know, the numbers did not stay proportional to what they were at the beginning of Bamidbar. There were a few sins that changed the demographics.
The changes for the bad for some of the tribes may also show us their involvement in the different events. We know that the tribe of Reuben was involved with the uprising of Korach and Rashi tells us why. The tribe of Reuben was neighbors with Korach and we know that, “woe to the wicked and woe to his neighbor”. The other two neighboring tribes were Shimon and Gad (not so surprising looking at the difference in numbers from the first to the second count). This may also show which other tribes were involved in these major events and why, instead of their numbers increasing, they decreased.
If we look today, we can see two different types of counting of Am Israel. We count the number of people who live in Israel and those who live in the diaspora. Thank God, the number in Eretz Israel continues to increase every year and so does the number who make aliya from all over the world. (We hope this number will continue to increase). On the other hand, over the past few decades we are able to see a decrease in the Jewish population of the world. This is not due to the fact that so many Jews are making aliya (which we hope will be the cause in the future) but because of the large number of intermarriages that are, unfortunately, happening.
As we can see, even though there should be an increase in numbers we show a decrease. As many Jews still “wander the desert”, our numbers will continue to decrease. It is up to us to stop wandering and come back home and then, with Hashem’s blessing, we will begin to see a real increase in Am Israel.