This week’s Torah portion is so involved with counting that the Talmud (Sota 36:) even calls the entire fourth book of the Torah (of which our parsha is the first), “Countings.” And yet, there was no intrinsic connection between the Jews as they were counted and the numbers that applied to them. The greatest Jew was counted no more and no less than the least of the Jews. While it’s true that only those over twenty years old were counted, still the twentieth year in life is something that we reach (G-d willing) automatically, and there is no special effort or merit on our part in so doing. That being the case, why is the first and most important commandment of the entire book of “Bamidbar” so intimately involved with counting?

Looking more deeply into the issue of counting, we see that what counting does achieve is to separate each individual unit within a group. That is, if you count all of the people in a room, you emphasize the differences between them and become aware of each one as an individual. However, the number that you come up with, either as you count, or after you finish, says nothing qualitative about the individual. It only separates him from every other individual. While the final number may make a statement about this particular group as opposed to another, it says nothing about the particular individuals within the group. And even that statement is only quantitative. It indicates the possible importance of the group in comparison to another group, but it doesn’t cause or explain it.

So, we see that counting is only external, only a sign and an indication. And that makes it all the more puzzling why this week’s portion and indeed the entire fourth book of the Torah, should be called “Counting.”

What we can say is that while a number has no importance of its own, when it is connected with an important object or group of objects, it takes on importance. When, for example, the populations of all the tribes in this week’s parsha are counted and it becomes apparent that they are the numbers of all the Jews in the desert, the numbers themselves take on importance (because of what they are describing – the Jewish people). The numbers have no intrinsic importance, but because they describe the Jews in the desert, they take on significance.

How that works, how quantity takes on the importance of quality, is the secret of the Jews. The task of the Jew is to join spirituality and physicality – to bring Heaven down to earth – and that means imbuing quantity with quality. The job of the Jew is to reveal oneness and unity in the world, by bringing the spiritual down into the physical world and uniting them. As such, for the Jew, there is no contradiction between quantity and quality.

We see this expressed in many ways. A prayer quorum, or “minyan” of ten men enables Jews to pray to their fullest – it doesn’t matter who the ten men are, if they are wise or not, if they are righteous or not. The fact that ten Jews get together to pray imparts a quality that is greater than the sum of all the individuals – and here we see that because of ten Jews, the number ten takes on importance. The same is true of three men in a “mezumen,” after eating bread and reciting the blessing over it. And if there are ten men who ate bread, one may mention the name of G-d in the “zimun,” and if there are more than one hundred, according to some opinions, one may recite “HaShem Elokeinu.” That is, a higher quantity and number of people brings a higher quality and level of holiness as well. The number (quantity) takes on importance (quality), regardless of the qualities of the individuals involved.

The same is true regarding performance of mitzvoth. While in the midst of performing one mitzvah, one is not required to perform another. This is because one should not get involved in comparing the qualitative level of one mitzvah vis-à-vis another – they are all important. Even more so; while fulfilling a mitzvah, one is even freed from the constant obligation of learning Torah. The Torah is the source and “soul” of the mitzvoth, and nonetheless, while one is involved in a mitzvah, he need not learn Torah, because the quantitative act of fulfilling the mitzvah itself becomes permeated with the qualitative edge of the Torah. Last, but not least, the Torah itself would not have been given to the Jews were not every Jewish soul present on Mt. Sinai. If even the least accomplished Jew failed to show up at Mt. Sinai, the Torah would not have been given. The sum total of all the Jews together imparted qualitative significance to the quantity of Jews – the six-hundred thousand who were present.

Ultimately, there’s a lesson in all of this for us. What’s demanded from us today is not quality, but quantity. It’s not for us to decide which Jews to endear, to educate, to bring closer to Torah and mitzvoth. Every Jew is important, and with quantity (numbers of Jews) comes quality. Our job is to reach out to every Jew and Jewess, and inform them of the Torah, teach them, and let them know what awaits them by fulfilling Torah and mitzvoth. At the same time, we cannot neglect our own spiritual well-being. We all must work on our own level of spiritual quality, and with that, G-d willing, we will succeed in reaching sufficient quantities of Jews to achieve the critical mass that will finally tilt the balance in favor of the Meshiach and the messianic age.

Likutei Sichot of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, vol. 1

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