A census is a boring thing and many people skip over the biblical tallies of the members of one tribe after another. Thousands of years later, who cares and why does it matter?
And yet, as demographers and statisticians will tell you, there are important stories buried in population numbers. There's a disturbing and fascinating one buried in the Jewish census.
After going through the counts of the various tribes, which range from the fifty and sixty thousands to the low thirties. The Levites, which are the least of the tribes, are counted separately. Unlike the Israelite census, which counted only men from twenty to sixty, the Levites were counted from a month of age. And they still only numbered 22,000.
Then the ritual of the redemption of the First Born was performed. The Levites were exchanged for the First Born, who had been sanctified by G-d, for the Levites. There are slightly more First Born Israelites than there are Levites and they are redeemed separately.
What's going on here?
To understand, let's look at those numbers again.
The Jewish people compromise over 600,000 men but little more than 22,000 first born sons.
Those numbers clearly don't add up and make for a ratio of around 1 to 27 first born to the total number of men.
If you take six families, assume that they have 5 children each, for a total of 30 children, and in half the families a son will be born first, then you have 3 first born males to 15 sons for a ratio of 1 to 5.
Why are there so few first born then among the Jews?
There are two possible answers.
1. We are told that in response to the Egyptian genocide, G-d blessed the Jews with fruitfulness. It's unknown how many children they had, but the count of the first-born would suggest that each family had well over a dozen children. No wonder the Egyptians were terrified of this baby boom.
2. When Pharaoh commanded the death of the boys born to the Jews, G-d could bless the family with yet more children, but not with more first-born. There can only be one first-born.
The number of first-born reveals the scale of the Egyptian genocide.
What should have been a 1/5 rate of 125,000 first-born instead became a 1/27 ratio of a little over 22,000. At a similar ratio, the number of Jewish boys killed by the Egyptians might have been in the millions making it the first Holocaust.
This also explains why the Jewish first-born were so special, they were miracle children and very few of them had been kept alive by their parents.
And it also explains why the final plague on Egypt was the death of the first-born.
Pharaoh had nearly wiped out the first-born of the Jews. And in return, G-d wiped out the first-born of Egypt.
In G-d's message to Pharaoh, He describes Israel as His first-born. The first-born child is special to the father. It is the symbol of his aspiration and hope for the future.
By eradicating the first-born, Pharaoh crushed the spirits of Jewish families. By slaying the first-born of Egypt, G-d broke the spirit of Pharaoh.
Like so much else in the Torah, we learn great things from small references, from numbers and from the secrets hiding between the lines of the word of G-d.