Reading this week’s parashah raises a number of complex questions regarding how to navigate the tension between the values set forth in the text and our present-day worldview in the context of women’s involvement in civil society. It is at this sensitive juncture that I would like to propose a few principles and methodologies for approaching traditional texts that seek to interpret the Torah.
One fundamental principle is that the Torah commentaries contain essential wisdom. Theirs is a live wisdom that flows from the fact that generations upon generations of people – all created in God’s image – have dealt with them, touching them, forming them and being formed by them. This principle leads us to understand that what these texts demand first and foremost is to be listened to, that we hear what they have to say, and attempt to understand them. Only then can we pause to consider what we have learned, to fully explore its implications. Once we can really penetrate what is being said, how and why, and we understand the implications, then we can ask questions and even criticize.
The verses that open up Parashat BeMidbar describe a familiar scene, “God spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the Tent of Meeting, saying” (BeMidbar 1:1). God turns to Moshe, who is in the tent of meeting, which is in the Sinai desert. What is unusual here, is that we also get the date of the encounter: “On the first day of the second month, in the second year following the exodus from the land of Egypt” (BeMidbar 1:1).
The date itself, the first of Sivan, is not otherwise special. It is notable in its ordinariness, it signals the beginning of the day-to-day life of the people in the wilderness. We find ourselves in the second year after leaving Egypt, already past the first Pesah commemorating the Exodus. All of the action of leaving Egypt is done. We have already received the Torah, we have already built the mishkan. What is left is to continue the journey, and to settle into the routine that defines it, as we walk through the desert on the way to Canaan.
This routine existence begins with the commandment to count:
Take a census (lit. lift the heads) of the whole Israelite community by the clans of its ancestral houses (lit. the houses of their fathers) listing the names, every male, head by head.
Rashi’s explanation echoes, or perhaps even constructs, an emotional framing for this counting and, indeed, for all other times that God counts Israel:
Rashi on BeMidbar 1:1
‘And He spoke. In the wilderness of Sinai, on the first day of the month etc.’ Out of their dearness before Him, He constantly counts them.
According to Rashi, this is a loving encounter, full of the affection between God and His people. When we have something that we love, we are inclined to count it, to be certain that it is still in existence, with us, to make it feel real. Similarly God counts Israel because He loves them. It is not only the fact of the counting but also the manner of the counting that demonstrates this affection. God counts the people using their names. This is a personal counting, that touches on each person individually.
There are other telling aspects of the way in which Benei Yisrael are counted – including noticing who is and who is not counted. Benei Yisrael are counted “by their clans, by their ancestral houses – by their families, the homes of their fathers” (BeMidbar 1:2). It appears that the counting happens by means of dividing the people into small sections. They are counted through family units that include several generations, here they are called “clans” or “families,” and the dual-generational units are called “ancestral houses” or “homes of fathers.” Though the term “clans” seems to be one that is widely inclusive, it turns out that it only covers the males – only men are counted.
There are a number of ramifications of this counting. First, women are not counted, their heads are not lifted, they are not part of the community of Benei Yisrael who are mentioned and counted by name. It appears that this is because they are considered dependent upon their husbands, or included in their counting, like children. Second, this means that certain families will not be counted, like those of a widow. This renders whole social units transparent, invisible – their members’ names aren’t worth mentioning, nor are they counted among those who comprise the numbers of “the Israelite community.”
This reality, that there are members of the Jewish people who are sidelined by this counting, makes Rashi’s comments slightly confusing. It makes it so that God’s grand gesture of affection actually excludes the widow and the orphan, those whom God especially professes to care about and love.
Exclusion brings forth greater exclusion, and so in the Talmud, we find an exegetical midrash which brings forth the focus exclusively on the men earlier in the first half of the verse.
Talmud Bavli Bava Batra 109b
Rava said, the verse said:… The father’s family is considered family, but the mother’s family is not considered family, as it says, ‘by the clans of its ancestral houses, by their families, the homes of their fathers.’
This intuition, that the ‘family’ in this verse refers to men, isn’t just an intuition. It emerges from a close reading of other relevant verses. First, the midrash examines the words in the verse: “by the clans of its ancestral houses, by their families, the homes of their fathers.” Although the word “clan,” “family,” does connote a collective, one that is inclusive in nature, the exegetical tradition chooses to read the word in context, in its place next to the expression “its ancestral houses – the homes of their fathers.” As such, the midrash sees the word “clan,” “family,” as relating somehow to the male members of the family. Second, the verse that follows contextualizes and possibly even explains the absence of women, as the counting is for the sake of the traditionally male military:
“You and Aaron shall record them by their groups, from the age of twenty years up, all those in Israel who are able to bear arms” (BeMidbar 1:3). In other words, the census only counts those eligible for military service, that is, men above the age of twenty.
However, Barukh HaLevi Epstein, in his commentary the Torah Temimah  , suggests a different and completely surprising reason for the exclusion of women from the census:
Torah Temimah on BeMidbar 1
The reason is simply because the men are those who construct the world and its civilization, and that’s why males are called sons (banim) from the root of construction (binyan).
The Torah Temimah suggests a philosophical and etymological basis for the exclusive counting of men at this time. And this explanation is completely untethered from the textual context. He explains that the males were counted because they are the builders of the world. There are a number of surprising things in the comments of the Torah Temimah. He doesn’t rely on any anomaly in the text of the verse itself to serve as an exegetical hook for his commentary. Furthermore, there is something perplexing about his focus on the building of the world and focusing on sons, as both those elements are not present in the verse.
Thus, in addition to perplexity, the Torah Temimah offers an amazing interpretation, according to which the army is involved in the larger project of building the world. This is done through an interpretation that moves from the inside out, from the nuclear family, to the multi-generational, all male, line – since only males are counted. Thus, the interpretation links males and sons (banim). This is a natural connection but not a literary or exegetical one, since the word banim, sons, is not found in our verses. Yet this connection enables the creation of a connection between sons, banim, and building, beniyah, since there is an assumption that only males are occupied with building. Yet building is not the issue at hand, the army is. In this way, the Torah Temimah also comments on what is happening at the beginning of the book of BeMidbar. He sees this moment of beginning the journey through the desert – of the people as en route to conquer the land through military force – as one that is literally constructive. He thinks of this time of travel as one of construction, of building, which is also the province of men. 
Connecting the vision of men as builders of the world to the vision of men as those who go out to war, lends a different focus to military action. Soldiers are not a narrow category of people and of being; and the army becomes a rich, active, and creative arena. Indeed, the army is not merely a means to fulfilling a narrow and specific aim of conquer or defense, but it is an arm of the group which is tasked with the broad project of building the world. The “soldiers” aren’t just those who defend the home but also includes those members who actively build and expand it.
As a modern reader living when there exists a modern state of Israel, I’m interested in, even moved by, this view of the army as a constructive force. Something that is creative, as well as protective, something that is optimistic and inspiring. However, with the expansion of the military project comes the expansion of the realm from which women are excluded as well.
It’s possible to cast doubt on the assumption that women would be outside of the project of building the world by looking at the concluding verse which summarizes the census of the people. This description differs from the opening verses of our parashah in that it is much more inclusive. It doesn’t say that the counting only applies to males, and it also includes within it the important role of childbearing, which we can read as including women by extension:
…and on the first day of the second month they convoked (lit. birthed) the whole community, who were registered by the clans of their ancestral houses – the names of those aged twenty years and over being listed head by head.
The sum of these verses, despite the somewhat more inclusive language at the end, could leave us unsettled and unsatisfied as contemporary readers. It is from this feeling that I invite us to think about the way we, in our different communities, count and regard the people around us. Do we count them out of love? Do we count them by name, tied to families, their maternal or paternal lines? Who are the people who merit to be counted by us and why? Is it possible that the obligating and drafting wind that blows around brings us, and sometimes inclines us, to ignore our partners in building home and world?
 Published 1902.
 The Torah Temimah’s etymological argument stems from a midrash in Tanhuma dealing with the connection between the words for son (ben) and building (binyan). The Tanhuma’s text of concern is the story of the birth of Noah. It says that his father “produced a son” instead of simply telling us the name of the child, as has mostly been the pattern in the verses (see Bereishit 5:28 vs. 5:25). This stylistic anomaly is explained by the midrash – “since through him the world was constructed.” After the flood and the destruction of the world, the production of offspring by Noah is the primary task of building the world. His explanation is based on the case of Noah, but the way that Noah built the world was also through the production of children. Producing children is the prototypical female activity – childbirth. This produces the impression that the play on words between building and boyhood is possibly a type of role reversal of the masculine and the feminine.