Bamidbar: Military Service and Family Units

[Tal Chermon]

The Book of Bamidbar connects the story of how we became a Nation, received the Torah, and built the Mishkan, so that the Shechina could dwell in our midst (i.e. the ideals taught us in the first three books) - with the fulfillment of our destiny in Devarim. Bamidbar is the book of transition, of being “on the way.”

In this week’s Parashah, we read of the census that was taken. The Nation of Israel crosses the desert in military formation, each tribe encamping in its own special area. The people are counted according to the number of men “able to go forth to war” (Bamidbar 1:3), all men from twenty to sixty years old. In contrast to the war with Amalek, in which only a chosen few fought on behalf of the entire nation (Shemot 17:9), in this case everyone age twenty or older must be prepared to go to war. As it says in Pirkei Avot (5:21), “Twenty is the age of pursuit”. That pursuit may be the pursuit of money, of a wife, or of the enemy.

The fact that The Nation of Israel travelled in military formation reflects our need to be prepared for war. Pacifist philosophy formulates a world in which, with a little bit of good will, all problems can be solved. If there were no armies and no weapons, the reasoning goes, everyone would live peacefully together. This is not true. Conflict between nations leads to violence. Until these conflicts are resolved, the nation must be able to defend itself.

In the desert, as we begin preparations for the journey to Eretz Israel, the Nation assumes the form of a military camp. We must be ready to defend ourselves and to conquer the Land if necessary. Although Hashem promised us that we would inherit the Land, “one does not depend on miracles” (see Ramban on Bamidbar 1:45). It is up to us to implement the Divine Promise. Similarly, King David fought for Jerusalem, even though it had been promised to him (Shmuel 1 chapters 8-9). He fought because of the promise, and not despite it. The Divine Promise is not a replacement for our actions, rather it forms the basis and validation of them.

The Children of Israel number 600,000 men of army age - a number which represents the complete Nation (Maharal, Gevurot Hashem, chap .3), and they are counted according to their families and houses of their fathers. As Maran HaRav Kook explains: “In order to comprehend the spiritual meaning of the concept of ‘Klal’ (the Nation as a whole), this ‘Klal’ must be enabled as a real nation …. The qualifications are: land and number …. Along with territory [of its own], it must have the requisite number of members… which is 600,000. Proof of this is the fact that we became a Nation in Egypt only when we had attained that number. This national requisite has not changed. That same number, encompassing all possible variations of personality and opinion, is sufficient today too to give us the character of a nation, so that no individuals may dare to set national values according to their own personal opinions” (Olat Re’eiyah vol. 1, pp. 387-388). When the War of Independence broke out in 5708, there were only 600,000 Jews in Eretz Israel. By 5728, when the Six-Day War erupted, there were about 600,000 soldiers in the army.

The Nation as an army is the very embodiment of the concept of a Nation as one united entity. The individual, his desires, his personal ambitions, his family ties - lose their independent existence and significance within the whole of the "Klal". As the Rambam states, “When he goes out to war, he is to depend on the Savior of Israel, and realize that his battle is to sanctify G-d’s Name. It is incumbent upon him to risk his life, not fearing anything nor thinking of his wife or children, but rather erasing their memory from his heart and concentrating solely on the battle” (Hilchot Melachim 7:15). In King David’s time, the soldiers divorced their wives before going to battle. It is not clear whether the divorce was unconditional or whether it took effect only if they did not return (Shabbat 56a). In any case, this is a very tangible expression of the obliteration of all personal and familial considerations in time of war.

At the same time, the national census is taken according to family membership. The family unit forms the basis of the Nation, a ‘sub-culture’ of our national culture. Our Nation’s power derives from our family units, as our Sages declared, “’Strength’ refers to Seder Nashim [that section of the Mishna dealing with family law]” (Shabbat 31a). The existence of family units means that the individual relinquishes a purely personal framework and lives within the framework of a certain group. The family is a miniature nation, and within it, the individual acquires group values. This framework imbues one’s personal life and home with national values. It is the natural, essential way to create a common set of values. All the same, “the whole is no more than the sum of its parts” (Baraita De-Rabbi Yishmael). The family is the basic national unit whereby the individual learns to identify with the nation and to accept its values.

For this reason, our Parashah notes that “Nadav and Avihu died before Hashem when they offered strange fire…and they had no children” (Bamidbar 3:4). Our Sages commented, “Had they had children, they would not have died - anyone who does not attempt to fulfill the Mitzvah of having children deserves the death penalty” (Yevamot 64a). Detachment from the family framework implies isolation from the whole and aloofness and individualism in a negative sense. Great as Nadav and Avihu may have been, their personalities were private, not joined to the Nation. It is the family which brings the Nation into the home, into the heart and soul of each individual.