2005This week's parsha includes the command to complete yet another census. This time, God says to Moshe and Eleazar, "Take a census of the whole Israelite community from the age of 20 years up, by their ancestral houses, all Israelites able to bear arms." (Bamidbar 26:2) This is the third census of the Israelites since leaving Egypt. The first census, in the book of Shemot, was taken to determine who would be obligated to contribute one half-shekel toward the building of the Tabernacle. The second census, at the start of the book of Bamidbar, was taken to record the people eligible for military service in order to be prepared for the battles to be encountered en route to the Promised Land. This week's census also references needing to be prepared for battle ("able to bear arms"), but it is primarily concerned with beginning the preparations for entering the Promised Land. The numbers of each of the different clans must be obtained in order to distribute the land in proportion to the size of each clan.
In each of the three censuses, age 20 is the age of maturation - all three censuses call for a counting of individuals age 20 and above. In addition to these references to age 20 as a critical point, there is another reference to the age of 20 years. In the book of Bamidbar, God tells Moshe and Aharon who will be prohibited from entering the Promised Land after the sin of the spies, "of all of you who were recorded in your various lists from the age of 20 years up, you who have muttered against Me, not one shall enter the land which I swore to settle you...." (Bamidbar 14: 29-30)
From each of the four examples, we can deduce that by age 20 certain developmental milestones are assumed to have been achieved:
1. Everyone of the age of 20 and above must pay one half-shekel to the building of the Tabernacle (Shemot, 30:13-14).The Torah clearly tells us that it is important to count the 20-year-olds. For those of us who work on campus, why is this important? Because the 20-year-olds (give or take a few years!) are our students. Literature from the field of higher education on the developmental impact of the college experience on students reinforces that the milestones we can deduce from the Torah's descriptions of what happens by age 20 are the milestones for our students. More importantly, we, as campus educators, have a role in helping our students achieve these milestones. A general understanding of the different areas for student growth allows us to create environments that intentionally encourage such development. These environments are created not just through physical spaces, but also through the programs and practices we establish.
Deduction: By age 20, one has developed a sense of responsibility to contribute to the affairs of the community and the basic means to be able to do so.
2. A census counts individuals able to bear arms age 20 and above. (Bamidbar 1:1-50)
Deduction: By age 20, one has achieved a certain level of physical and vocational skill.
3. The spies return from scouting out the Promised Land. They express to the Israelites a lack of confidence in themselves and in the community's ability to attack the people there in order to take the land ("we were like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them"). (Bamidbar 13:33). The Israelites react to their account with a sense of panic, dread and lack of faith in God to protect them. As a result, those age 20 and above are fated not to enter the Promised Land (Bamidbar 14: 29-30).
Deduction: By age 20, one has developed a level of self-esteem that is not only reflected to oneself, but is also conveyed to others.
4. A census counts the Israelites in groupings based on their families. This was done in order to be able to prepare the apportioning of the land upon entering the Promised Land. (Bamidbar 26:1-56)
Deduction: By age 20, one should possess a sense of their history in order to prepare for where he or she is going.
Theory, Applied on Campus
What practices do we have in place that help students achieve a sense of responsibility to the community, vocational skill, self-esteem and a sense of who they are and where they are going?
What other developmental milestones do we help our students achieve in college? What environments do we create to intentionally support their growth?
Torah, Applied on Campus
In the first census from the book of Bamidbar, the Israelites are counted by their names. In the subsequent census, the count is organized by family history. When we first meet students, we concentrate on learning their names. As we get to know them, we learn where they come from and where they are going.
A Final Thought
On campus, 20-year-olds tend to be a neglected cohort. Mostly they are second-semester sophomores and first-semester juniors. They are no longer a part of Hillel's target population for engagement as freshmen and still not able to celebrate the coveted 21st birthday. Only a select few have risen to the top as Hillel student leaders, while many others are preparing to study in a different country. The Torah tells us to count the 20-year-olds. How do we convey to the 20-year-olds on our campuses that they count?
Prepared by Cindy Spungin, director of student activities, Brandeis University Hillel.
Additional commentaries and text studies on Pinchas at MyJewishLearning.com.