“Take the sum of the entire congregation of Israel” (1:2)
The “Book of Numbers” acquired its name from the census which takes place here at the opening of the
book (see Yoma 68b). While at first glance, head-counting may appear to be a rather simple, almost
trivial pursuit, Chasidic thought explains that the census recorded here in our Parshawas a profound
event which touched on the very core of the Jewish spirit.
When a group of people are counted, everybody is equal. No person is counted twice, however
important he may be, and even the most insignificant person is counted once. What, then, are we
actually counting? It is not our personalities, our talents, our wealth, our knowledge or our esteem;
rather, we are counting our very identities. Thus when Jewish people are counted—says Chasidic
thought—the “nucleus” of our Jewish identities (possessed by all Jews equally) is stimulated and
brought to the surface.
This “nucleus” of Jewishness is responsible for the remarkable display of courage among countless
Jewish people who, throughout history, were threatened with death if they refused to renounce their
Judaism. For a person who had dedicated his life to the practice of Judaism, one can understand that
he might sacrifice his life because Judaism is his raison d’etre. But logic would dictate that another
person, less committed to Jewish practice, would surely be willing to “tolerate” a momentary lapse
in observance to save his life. Even a very pious person could argue that he would later mend this
temporary lapse with teshuvah (repentance)....
In fact, however, history has shown that countless Jews, from a broad cross-spectrum of backgrounds
(including the non-observant) gave up their lives rather than transgress. Why? Because their
Jewish “nucleus” is always alive; as Rashi writes, “He counts them all the time” (see Classic Questions to
v. 1). And when this Godly spark comes to the surface, any Jew will naturally feel that his Jewish identity
is so important that he is not willing to compromise it, even for a moment.
(Based on Likutei Sichos vol. 8, p. 1ff)