A fair amount of times, the Torah reports that the Jewish People conducted a census, breaking down how many men were in each tribe, and then adds up the subtotals for a total count. It occupies a lot of space in the Torah.

The Ramban explains that taking a census is a basic government function to organize logistics, safety, and military planning.

While that is accurate, the Torah’s lessons are timeless and eternal. Of what value to us is the level of detail in the raw statistical data from each census?

The Ramban explains that the information itself is more relevant to daily government, which is probably why it only covered military-age men. But the lesson isn’t in the data; it’s in the method of counting.

The way they counted was that every individual would have to appear before Moshe and Ahron, and God. The requirement to appear before the entire generation’s leadership tells us that those people were not just numbers; they were valuable individuals.

There is a constant interplay between individualism and collectivism. Individualism stresses individual identity and goals; collectivism focuses on group identity and goals, what is best for the collective group. The notion of collectivism and unity – אַחְדוּת – is all too often propounded to squash individuality, and we mustn’t tolerate that. You are not just a cog in a machine, with another human being at the ready to take your place. You are not the property of the state or any group or person.

And as the Lubavitcher Rebbe put it, people are not dollars. You are not fungible. You are not replaceable.

R’ Jonathan Sacks highlights the Torah’s choice of words for the count – שְׂאוּ אֶת־רֹאשׁ כָּל־עֲדַת בְּנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵל / כִּי תִשָּׂא אֶת־רֹאשׁ בְּנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵל – literally, “lift the heads.” There are many ways to say “count” in Hebrew; this isn’t one of the naturally obvious ones. Again, the Torah seems to be saying that even among the crowd, lift your head up high and proud. To this day, Jews do not count people directly, but instead, count heads.

There is a beautiful and uncommon blessing we say upon seeing a crowd of multitudes – חכם הרזים – the knower of secrets, which the Gemara explains as acknowledging God’s greatness in knowing each of us in our individual hearts, despite our different faces and minds. This is a subtle but vital point – God is great not because of the glory and sheer size of the crowd, but because God can see each of us as distinct within the sea of all too forgettable faces; God can see the individual within the collective.

It is a blessing in praise of the God who creates diversity in our world, rejoicing in our different minds, opinions, and thoughts. It is a blessing over Jewish pluralism. It is one thing to tolerate our differences; it is quite another to acknowledge them as a blessing. It is one thing to love Jews because we are all Jewish, that is, the same; it is quite another to love Jews because they are different from ourselves.

We cannot tolerate factionalism, where one subgroup splinters from the main group, but we cannot afford to exclude individuals. The Torah makes incredible demands of us, and we mostly fall well short, some a little more, some a little less.  We must hold ourselves to the highest standards, but we can never look down at our fellow.

To argue the other side, while we must celebrate individuality, we must not condone individualism. Our duty is to find a balance between being individuals while remaining part of the group. We need to maintain a tension between the need for individual freedom and the demands of others.

The whole idea of loving others is that they are not just like you; if you had to love people like you, that would just be loving yourself and would demand nothing of you. We must reinforce the notion of tolerance of heterogeneity, people not just like us.

Loving another is not that I care about someone in my circle who is just like me, and perhaps I have a duty to expand my conception of who is in the circle. That would be loving yourself and would demand nothing of you.  Loving another means that someone else’s problems bother me so deeply that I simply have to do something about it, and I will be lacking if I do not. The idea of loving another does not include circles – it has nothing to do with people’s similarity.

Evolutionary theory teaches that co-operation is as important for survival as competition. You’re irreplaceable and unique – but remember that we need you! The strength of the team is each individual. The strength of each individual is the team.

The idea that every Jew is worthy enough to be presented before God and the generation’s leadership, that every Jew must lift their head high, is timeless and eternal. Moreover, it teaches a broader lesson that is portable to all and covers women, children, and the elderly as well. The Jewish People are something massively monumental, yet we each have our own significant role to play. We must celebrate each other’s unique contributions while striving to do more ourselves.

This probably illuminates an interesting comment by Rashi, that the point of the census was to discern how many people had survived the plague that followed the Golden Calf debacle. The plague killed a small fraction of the total population figure given in the Torah, so it’s strange to talk in terms of “survivors” when only a few succumbed. But if we consider each individual as a core component of the Jewish People, then the Jewish People as a whole really is damaged by the loss of any single person, and the remainder truly are “survivors”.

The Baal Shem Tov taught that if the Jewish People are a Sefer Torah, then every Jew is a letter.

The Torah counts everyone. Because everyone counts.

You can be the best whistler in the world, but you can’t whistle a symphony. It takes an orchestra.

The Torah is written in the language of humans, and storytelling is one of humanity’s most powerful tools. Some parts of the Torah are communicated in the forms of laws, and others in stories.  Integral messages can be passed through the ages, each generation filtering it through its wisest minds, gleaning new insights in each telling.

Some authorities say that our tradition’s stories are not about ordinary people like us; they are about perfect saints who were qualitatively different from us.

This is not a universally held position, and with good reason. If the stories are about holy people who are different from us, how can their stories be relevant guidance for our lives?

The Maharitz Chajes notes that stories are often the Torah’s medium for teaching us about morality because mature people understand that moral choices are often difficult and rarely black and white. While the law is made of words, those words have to be lived, and only a story transmits the turmoil and weight of how those words and values interface with real life.

 When famine struck Avraham’s new home in Israel, he decided that his family would have better food security in Egypt’s fertile land, and they left Israel. While this was an eminently reasonable decision to have made based on his assessment of the facts, the way it worked out was that he placed Sarah in a highly compromising situation that required divine intervention after Paroh took her.

The Ramban criticizes Avraham for leaving Israel and not counting on God’s promises, and not only that but by abandoning Israel, he jeopardized and risked those very promises and endangered the family he was trying to protect.

R’ Jonathan Sacks suggests that the Torah’s enduring hold is that our heroes are not gods or demigods; they are mortal men. God is God, and humans are human – and humans make mistakes.

R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch notes that this kind of discussion is an essential feature of our rich heritage. Our ancestors are prototypes of what the ideal human acts like, but the Torah does not whitewash its heroes; ideal humans are still human.

Our role models cannot be idealized characters; they wouldn’t be relevant if they weren’t materially like us. What makes them great is precisely the fact that they weren’t so different from us. They faced the same kinds of problems we do: how best to protect and provide for their families; and how to maintain their beliefs and practices while trying to do the right thing.

Avraham was not born holy and perfect, nor under extraordinary or supernatural circumstances. Avraham did not possess some innate characteristic that gave him some sort of holy advantage. Avraham is first and foremost in our pantheon of great figures because, throughout his struggles, he maintained his integrity and persevered – sometimes rightly and sometimes wrongly. He was great because of the things he did, not because he was born that way.

The Torah speaks in whole truths to give a three-dimensional view of the people we look up to. The Torah is for and about humans; because it’s ok to be human.

The Torah is replete with stories about how great people make mistakes – it’s arguably a unifying theme of every story in the Torah! Adam eats the fruit. Noach doesn’t save a single person from his generation. Avraham compromises Sarah. Yitzchak favors Esau. Yakov cheats his father. Yosef’s brothers are human traffickers. The generation that comes out of Egypt is doomed to wander and die in the wilderness. Moshe doesn’t get to the Promised Land. The Promised Land doesn’t result in the Final Redemption. If there’s an exception, perhaps Chanoch or Binyamin, it proves the rule because we know nothing at all about them!

So crucially, here we are 3000 years later, still trying. Perfection and the finish line are ever-elusive. But the Torah’s stories guide our way across the ages because they matter to us. They teach us that, although perfection is out of human reach, greatness is not.

What makes us great isn’t what we are; it’s about what we do.

The Ramban says that Shmita and the Yovel cycle are fundamental mitzvos. Something is lost on us today – slavery has mostly vanished from earth, and Shmita and Yovel have long been missing large chunks of their key halachos for thousands of years.

Consider the fact that when the Ramban classified it as fundamental, Yovel hadn’t been properly marked for centuries. What about it is fundamental when the laws associated with it seems so antiquated, archaic, and arguably irrelevant?

The Pnei Yehoshua explains that Yovel is not just a time when slaves go free – it is a Yom Tov that celebrates freedom and liberty. The Sfas Emes notes that the nation was born by being liberated from the crucible of Egypt.

After millennia of exiles, restrictions on movement, bans, pogroms, genocide, and general oppression, society has developed to give all people human and civil rights; Jews can now practice Judaism relatively freely, to the extent that younger people today have little idea of what not being free means. While progress is undoubtedly a good thing, we must be vigilant not to take our rights for granted.

One of the brachos said daily is שלא עשני עבד – perhaps this alludes the principle that we do not take our unprecedented liberties for granted.

Yovel was dedicated to displaying our gratitude that we are always able to serve God – indicated by the shofar being blown. It becomes abundantly clear why it is classified a foundational mitzva; freedom is a wonderful thing that we are very grateful for. But moreover, perhaps it shows that even under oppression, slavery, and exile, we are nonetheless subjugated exclusively to God.

The soul always remains free.

At the end of Creation, before the first Shabbos begins, the concluding overview summarizes how all the component parts came together:

וַיַּרְא אֱלֹהִים אֶת-כָּל-אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה, וְהִנֵּה-טוֹב מְאֹד; וַיְהִי-עֶרֶב וַיְהִי-בֹקֶר, יוֹם הַשִּׁשִּׁי – And God saw all that He had done, and it was very good. With an evening and a morning, the sixth day. (1:31)

The Ramban notes how כָּל-אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה includes the  unpleasant aspects of creation which are nonetheless labeled טוֹב מְאֹד – excellent. With a greater perspective, everything turns out for the best.

The Netziv further adds that this was not just true of that individual moment. Within that moment, all potential and future moments were dormant, and all that latent potential was excellent as well.

Rabeinu Bachye notes how at the conclusion of every other day, the Torah describes it as כי טוב – it was “good”. But on the final day, where all the different aspects of existence had been formed and came together, it became something else; טוֹב מְאֹד – “excellent”. The creation itself was truly greater than sum of its parts; like a sophisticated machine, all the various levers, gears and cogs came together to become something utterly incredible.

The Kli Yakar points out the contrast between the first five days of כי טוב, and the conclusion of events called וְהִנֵּה טוֹב מְאֹד. The Kli Yakar explains that כי is a term of clarification. It indicates a deliberation weighing towards טוב. But when everything comes together, it is unqualified – וְהִנֵּה טוֹב מְאֹד – it is clearly and absolutely good.

The Sforno explains that the conclusion of creation achieved an equilibrium; existence was literally “at rest” – precisely the definition of Shabbos. With the acceptance and absorption of the imperfections in the world, the Torah was in balance. The Torah calls this טוֹב מְאֹד.

Existence was whole, complete and in balance. On such a sixth day – הַשִּׁשִּׁי – “the” perfect sixth day, Shabbos can finally commence.

Perfection is seeing that there are countless components to the sophisticated machine that is life, some of which are tough, but all of which, together, make it work. It just takes a little perspective.

The books of the Torah transition into each other, beginning new phases in the Jewish people’s development.

The book of Shemos is known as Sefer HaGeula – the Book of Redemption, or Exodus, named for how the Jewish people achieved liberty and independence, culminating in Sinai. But only the first quarter addresses this. The remainder addresses the Mishkan and its requirement.

What does the Mishkan have to do with redemption the book is named after?

The Ramban explains that the book measures the full spectrum of redemption. Redemption of the body is incomplete without redemption of the soul. The nation only had a purpose once the Torah was given a home among the community, and the community could carry the Torah into their lives.

The conclusion of Bereishis concludes with the same theme.

The Ksav Sofer explains that Yaakov descendants bless their children to be like Efraim and Menashe, who were excellent Jews worthy of being considered as if they were Yakov’s own, while simultaneously aiding Yosef with the administration of Egypt’s government.

The story of Bereishis ends in the rise of the Jew in both spiritual and earthly pursuits on a personal level, and the story of Shemos extends that to the national scale.

While mature people recognize that different characteristics can be channeled for the better differently by different people, there are some that we recognize as universal, like kindness, strongly identified with Avraham, or humility, frequently associated with Yakov.

When Yakov arrived at Lavan’s house, he had just the clothes on his back and the staff in his hand. Yet, he left with a large family entourage, thriving livestock, and serious wealth. Evaluating himself, he determined that he was more fortunate than could otherwise be expected:

קָטֹנְתִּי מִכֹּל הַחֲסָדִים וּמִכָּל הָאֱמֶת אֲשֶׁר עָשִׂיתָ אֶת עַבְדֶּךָ – I am humbled by all the kindness You have done Your servant. (32:11)

The Ramban explains that Yakov felt that his blessings were grossly disproportionate, far beyond anything he could have deserved, and recognized that God had been generous with him.

The truth is, if we take similar stock of our blessings, most of us will have to admit something similar. Do we deserve our families? Our friends? Our successes? Or even further, to be born into our family,  and the privileges that came along with?  Do we deserve to have been born in the most healthy and wealthy era in human history? Can we truly say that we didn’t equally deserve to be born to a poor peasant family in Outer Mongolia in the Middle Ages?

The Gemara cryptically teaches that everyone needs a dose of arrogant confidence to offset humility, and the proper amount is an eighth of an eighth – leaving the denominating unit unspecified. The Gemara doesn’t suggest that the unit is one sixty-fourth, and the Vilna Gaon notes that Yakov’s admission is the eighth verse in the eighth Parsha and should serve as the model of how to handle our blessings confidently.

R’ Shlomo Farhi teaches that the Torah uses sevens for complete natural cycles, and the number eight restarts the cycle, an octave higher. For example, circumcision is performed on the day after one seven day cycle; and the Yovel is the year after seven full Shmita cycles.

The notion of eighths concerning how to handle our blessings speaks to the idea that we are all blessed – we should be grateful for what we have and dedicate those talents, tools, and resources to make an impact. That’s one eighth.

But it’s quite possible to get carried away. Sure, I’m fortunate to have received so many blessings, but why me, of all people? It’s not hard to think there’s an element of justice involved, that maybe you really do deserve it on some level. That’s the second eighth.

In mysticism, this paradox is called the bread of shame – נהמא דכיסופא. If our souls just stayed in Heaven, basking in the ethereal light, it would be a degrading handout. Our souls go into bodies so we can earn our way back, and it’s no longer a handout. But the thing is, the notion of earning anything at all is an elaborate illusion – the system itself is a gift, the biggest gift of all.

When we realize how fortunate we are, we feel like Yakov, humbled by God’s generosity. Sure, there’s plenty that could be better, and we have very hungry ambitions for much more. But Yakov was self-aware enough to acknowledge those blessings, long before he had stability or security. He could see his blessings for the good fortune they were even while on the run, yet again, escaping Lavan’s clutches while hoping to avoid getting slaughtered by his brother Esau and his forces. We can want lots more but recognize the blessings that have gotten us where we are.

Crucially, we should take note of where this self-reflection propelled Yakov.

Yakov knew he was blessed, and he knew he hadn’t earned those blessings. The very first thing Yakov did after escaping Esau was to buy land and install an altar to thank God.

It’s not enough to know that we’re blessed. We have to recognize that the fact we have any gifts is the greatest gift of all, and taking Yakov’s example, all we can do is pay it forward and make sure we use our blessings for the best purposes we can find.

It’s a very basic question, and there are many approaches to take. The Ramban on Vayikra 1:9 discusses various approaches we will analyse, and is widely considered one of the fundamental parts of the Ramban’s commentary on the Chumash.

The Ramban quotes the Rambam in Moreh Nevuchim as the first approach. The Rambam writes there that the idea of Jews using animal sacrifice was necessary for the people as they needed a physical method of worship, having been a part of the pagan culture in Egypt and other such places. To battle and rectify the idol worship in the world, the Jews would do the same action for a sacred purpose.

The Ramban disagrees strongly with this on many facets. If we base an entire method of service to Hashem on the actions of fools and sinners, why would Hashem gain anything from it at all? Vayikra 1:9 says that the korban creates אשה ריח ניחוח ליהוה – Hashem “enjoys” the fact that we bring korbanos. The implication of the Rambam is that the korbanos are more for man than Hashem, but  if the korbanos were for man, why would Hashem enjoy it? We must find a suitable explanation for bringing korbanos that also explains why Hashem instructs it of us, rather than why why we ought to do it.

The Ramban points out that if the Rambam in Moreh Nevuchim is correct, that Jewish animal sacrifice only exists to battle idol worship, then we would not find instances of korbanos before an instance of idol worship. But this is not so – Adam was the first human – there were obviously no other people around to worship idols – yet he brought korbanos nonetheless, and so too with Noach; his family were the sole survivors of the Flood – so again, there could be no idol worshippers – and we find that nonetheless he did bring korbanos. How would the Rambam explain these instances where there was no idol worship to fight?

He further asks why the solution to idol worship would be to do the same thing in a different way – this seems to lend credibility to the idolatry the korbanos are trying to fight, chas v’shalom. It would seem that it would be better to just eat animals and not have sacrifices at all if we were indeed trying to fight the credibility of idol worship, as eating them shows we don’t consider them to be worthy of special attention.

R’ Yakov Minkus explains the solution to this issue. The Rambam in his magnum opus, the Mishneh Torah (Hilchos Me’ila 8:8) writes explicitly that the yesod – the distilled, fundamental, reason to bring korbanos is a חוק – there is no reason to do it other than the fact we were told to. The Moreh Nevuchim explains the inverse of this – once the mitzva exists, there is a spillover effect that we can relate to more, but the underlying reasoning remains a חוק. With this knowledge at hand, of course Noach could bring a korban, and the question about the non-existence of idol-worship falls away. Battling idol worship isn’t why there are korbanos as a starting point, rather, it helps explain it after the fact.

With this knowledge of the Rambam’s true approach to korbanos, we can suggest an answer to the question of why the countering of idol worship would take a similar form, rather than denigrating it, by simply eating all animals regularly, without any sacrifices at all.

Korbanos have their blood sprinkled on the Mizbeach, by a kohen, in the Beis Hamikdash. The Korban Pesach had none of these key functions, so why is it called a korban at all? R’ Moshe Shapiro explains that the key to understanding this issue is that idol worship is not nothing. Paganism and idol worship have a כח הטומאה – they usurp and corrupt spirituality. Eating an animal doesn’t battle the the negative of idol worship, it just nullifies it. The nullification does not require the Beis Hamikdash, or sprinkling of blood by the kohen.  This is why the Pesach could be brought publicly in Egypt. The Rambam in Moreh Nevuchim was saying that all korbanos have this nullifying the negative aspect to which we can relate, but we now see this isn’t the full spectrum of his opinion.

The Ramban then offers a second approach. There is an intrinsic good on man’s part in having korbanos. The idea of a korban is that a person should see the animal as being his substitute, and really, he ought to be sacrificed. The animal takes his place and atones for his sins, and this is the reason to have korbanos.

There is a mighty flaw with this approach too however. Most korbanos are donated, rather than obligated of people, so the Ramban’s approach doesn’t explain the existence of donated korbanos at all.

The Ramban offers a third solution, that is beyond the scope of this site to explain properly. The word קרבן, the root of which is the word קרב, means “closeness”. Offering a korban engenders closeness with Hashem. This is a difficult concept to explain, let alone understand, but to illustrate: we perform mitzvos to emulate Hashem’s ways, but we are not emulating Hashem by bringing korbanos – we are doing something else: we are interacting with Hashem. We are provoking a reaction in Hashem, as the pasuk says; “אשה ריח ניחוח ליהוה” – on which Rashi remarks “נחת רוח לפני, שאמרתי ונעשה רצוני”. This is difficult to illustrate, but there is a difference between doing Hashem’s will, and making it. When we bring a korban, we bring more of Hashem’s will into the world. One could suggest there is an element of creation here.

The Ramban brings a proof from Isaiah 60:7 that says: יַעֲלוּ עַל רָצוֹן מִזְבְּחִי וּבֵית תִּפְאַרְתִּי אֲפָאֵר – the Mizbeach is the expression of Hashem’s will.

So in bringing a korban, a person intentions are going to correlate to how they have extended G-d’s will in the world. This is why there is a concept of pigul, (a lengthy concept regarding what happens in the event that all the actions of a korban were carried out correctly, but someone in the porcess was thinking about something mundane, like the weather. Around 40 pages of Meseches Zevachim are devoted to this) – because the physical animal isn’t what matters – there is a transfer of spirituality here, from potential/theoretical to physical in this world. It’s a very big deal. The improper thoughts mean one can’t interact with what he’s trying to, and the korban has served it’s purpose, as the whole idea is not the physical at all.

So in answer to why we bring korbanos: there is the simple Moreh Nevuchim approach that we are counteracting paganism, the Ramban’s simple approach that we can atone our sins, and the Ramban’s esoteric Kabbalistic approach. We can suggest though, that perhaps the חוק aspect that the Rambam referred to was this third approach, and perhaps all the opinions harmonise together. Admittedly, this doesn’t answer why we bring korbanos, but it does explain what the function of the korban is.