The number of the Children of Israel shall be like the sand of the sea, which can be neither measured nor counted… (Hoshea 2:1)
The Book of Bamidbar opens with a command to Moshe to count the heads of our people. The Gemara teaches (Yoma 22b) that it is forbidden to count Jews even if the count is needed for performance of a mitzvah. The proof is brought from King Shaul, who commanded each person to bring a sheep and then the sheep were counted in place of the Jews (Shemuel 1, chapter 15). We also learn in Parashat Ki Tisa that counting Jewish people one by one is forbidden, in the count done by Moshe, where each individual to be counted submitted a coin and the results of the census were based on the number of coins collected.
Why is it forbidden to count Jews directly, yet it is permissible through other means?
Our people are compared to stars (Beresheet 15:5) and to sand (ibid., 32:13). In fact, after the akeidah, the angel compared the offspring of Avraham to both sand and stars (ibid. 22:17).
When water is added to sand, the grains join together into one solid piece. Such is the nature of the Jewish people. Torah is compared to water. The common bond of Torah joins Jews from all over the world together. Upon returning from a business trip to a trade show in China, a merchant said, “We were a minyan made up of people who spoke different languages at home — French, Spanish, English, Turkish, etc. — yet we were all able to communicate in the common language of Torah.” When we returned to our Holy Land after World War II and the Holocaust, people from all over the globe were united through Torah study and mitzvah performance.
Stars, on the other hand, are beneficial to the whole each on its own. So, too, the Jew, wherever he may reside, contributes to the social environment in which he lives. The contributions of Jews to mankind throughout history far outweigh our people’s relative numbers.
When one counts “bodies,” one only finds out “how many” there are. The relative differences in quality and abilities are not revealed. Such is one of the shortcomings of democracy. In a democratic society, every individual — without regard to intelligence, education, manners or civility — gets an equal voice in selection of its leaders and formation of its legal system. One’s ability to judge and decide on complex issues and qualities is not taken into consideration. It is still probably the best system of leader selection devised by the gentile world. However, in the nation of Israel — the Chosen People — ruled by Torah, the qualities of every individual not only differ greatly from one to another but are also taken into account. Our Torah leaders meet and discuss and decide what we all must do and what we should avoid. They are the best of us and they can lead us to the best results in our lives.
It is for this reason that we do not count every individual as “one” and come to a cumulative total. However, when we need to know “how many,” we substitute a coin or a sheep or a word from a passuk — things that are all the same. Our people are together like sand but individually great like stars.