I’ve never worn a military uniform, not even as a Purim costume, because I’ve never considered myself worthy of one. But as I approach my 50th birthday in a few months, I realize this week that had I been born in a different time in Jewish history, I would just be aging out of military service. And had I been born in or relocated to Israel, my miluim (reserve) duty would only have ended five years ago.
That being said, we’ve heard from an inordinate number of armchair soldiers in the last few days, as many wannabe military strategists have suggested how Israel might have reduced the number of fatalities on the Gaza border last Monday. Can learn something about soldiering from the Torah? Conveniently, as we begin the fourth book of the Torah in this week’s portion, Bemidbar, we’ll find some helpful insights.
This is the Torah portion that gives us the first census, and it is focused on males between the ages of 20 and 50, ostensibly for establishing the number of available soldiers for some purpose, but one not initially expressed. The Torah says, “Se-u et rosh B’nai Yisrael,” which is translated as “take a census” but literally means “lift up the heads of the Israelites.” In modern parlance, we would call this a head count. Is that why the Torah uses this phrase?
The second issue I want to explore is the relationship between the census in chapter one and the formation of the encampment in chapter two. The tribes were to be arranged in a particular pattern around the Mishkan, both when they set up camp and when they were in transit. What was the reason for this specific specific seating chart? Was it based on anything the Israelites might have known? What can we learn from this arrangement today?
Finally, given these insights from Torah, perhaps it’s best to hear from some of the actual combatants at the Gaza border, so they can tell us if the Torah’s lessons still apply.
Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom and Hag Sameah,