As we point toward the Torah it mirrors current times, and vice-versa. It is timely and topical this week because of various controversies surrounding the math behind the novel coronavirus pandemic. I like continuing to use the word novel to describe the pandemic, since much of the story is still being written and we are part authors of, and characters in the COVID-19 experience.
In Part One I noted that that this week’s Torah reading is Bamidbar, focused on the act of enumeration, and it has an element of mathematical controversy as well.
First, note the apparent redundancy. Beginning with the first-born Re’euven:
וַיִּֽהְי֤וּ בְנֵֽי־רְאוּבֵן֙ בְּכֹ֣ר יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל תּֽוֹלְדֹתָ֥ם לְמִשְׁפְּחֹתָ֖ם לְבֵ֣ית אֲבֹתָ֑ם בְּמִסְפַּ֤ר שֵׁמוֹת֙ לְגֻלְגְּלֹתָ֔ם כָּל־זָכָ֗ר מִבֶּ֨ן עֶשְׂרִ֤ים שָׁנָה֙ וָמַ֔עְלָה כֹּ֖ל יֹצֵ֥א צָבָֽא … the number of individual names of every male from twenty years old and upward, all who were fit to go out to the army. And that, followed by the number. In the case of Re’euven’s tribe, 46,500 (פְּקֻֽדֵיהֶ֖ם לְמַטֵּ֣ה רְאוּבֵ֑ן שִׁשָּׁ֧ה וְאַרְבָּעִ֛ים אֶ֖לֶף וַֽחֲמֵ֥שׁ מֵאֽוֹת)
You’d think at this point it would have sufficed just to present the tally for each subsequent tribe, yet the Torah is compelled to repeat the same formula each time:
לִבְנֵ֣י שִׁמְע֔וֹן תּֽוֹלְדֹתָ֥ם לְמִשְׁפְּחֹתָ֖ם לְבֵ֣ית אֲבֹתָ֑ם פְּקֻדָ֗יו בְּמִסְפַּ֤ר שֵׁמוֹת֙ לְגֻלְגְּלֹתָ֔ם כָּל־זָכָ֗ר מִבֶּ֨ן עֶשְׂרִ֤ים שָׁנָה֙ וָמַ֔עְלָה כֹּ֖ל יֹצֵ֥א צָבָֽא
לִבְנֵ֣י גָ֔ד תּֽוֹלְדֹתָ֥ם לְמִשְׁפְּחֹתָ֖ם לְבֵ֣ית אֲבֹתָ֑ם בְּמִסְפַּ֣ר שֵׁמ֗וֹת מִבֶּ֨ן עֶשְׂרִ֤ים שָׁנָה֙ וָמַ֔עְלָה כֹּ֖ל יֹצֵ֥א צָבָֽא
לִבְנֵ֣י יְהוּדָ֔ה תּֽוֹלְדֹתָ֥ם לְמִשְׁפְּחֹתָ֖ם לְבֵ֣ית אֲבֹתָ֑ם בְּמִסְפַּ֣ר שֵׁמֹ֗ת מִבֶּ֨ן עֶשְׂרִ֤ים שָׁנָה֙ וָמַ֔עְלָה כֹּ֖ל יֹצֵ֥א צָבָֽא
לִבְנֵ֣י יִשָּׂשכָ֔ר תּֽוֹלְדֹתָ֥ם לְמִשְׁפְּחֹתָ֖ם לְבֵ֣ית אֲבֹתָ֑ם בְּמִסְפַּ֣ר שֵׁמֹ֗ת מִבֶּ֨ן עֶשְׂרִ֤ים שָׁנָה֙ וָמַ֔עְלָה כֹּ֖ל יֹצֵ֥א צָבָֽא
… and so forth for each of the remaining tribes. Now I have to confess that for a bar mitzvah boy it’s a pleasure to be able to get into the rhythm of having this much space taken up by repetitive phrases with repetitive “trup”. But then when the census is finished, the Torah announces not only that the tally was done, but again how it was done:
אֵ֣לֶּה הַפְּקֻדִ֡ים אֲשֶׁר֩ פָּקַ֨ד משֶׁ֤ה וְאַֽהֲרֹן֙ וּנְשִׂיאֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל שְׁנֵ֥ים עָשָׂ֖ר אִ֑ישׁ אִֽישׁ־אֶחָ֥ד לְבֵֽית־אֲבֹתָ֖יו הָיֽוּ
וַיִּֽהְי֛וּ כָּל־פְּקוּדֵ֥י בְנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל לְבֵ֣ית אֲבֹתָ֑ם מִבֶּ֨ן עֶשְׂרִ֤ים שָׁנָה֙ וָמַ֔עְלָה כָּל־יֹצֵ֥א צָבָ֖א בְּיִשְׂרָאֵֽל
This is followed in the next chapter not only by the geography of encampment of the twelve tribes, but again repeating the identical census of each tribe.
I do not currently have access to commentaries other than Rashi, who is silent on the reason for the seemingly redundant information here, but I do recall seeking out explanations for this many years ago. I cannot quote any of those sources, but it is apparent that the Torah is underscoring the importance of consistent and accurate calculations when accounting for population information and geopolitical positioning. That brings us back to the hodgepodge the world faces currently with regard to the chaotic nature of COVID counting. Here, for example, is an attempted explanation at why the counting is so murky:
An accurate tabulation is not just important so that politicians have less egg on their faces about requests, categorizations, and predictions based on modeling. It also speaks to the heart of what we are experiencing today, which is the tremendous variation and guesswork in trying to restore normalcy to societal functioning. There is good reason to question the accuracy of the count. As we attempt to distance ourselves from these days of unrest, let us remind one another that accurate numbers matter.