Torah for the Times
Parshat Bamidbar
Book of Numbers
One of the names ascribed to the fourth book of the Torah is Bamidbar (In the Desert) and another is Numbers (In Hebrew:  Sefer Hapikudim).
The second name, “Numbers,” relates to the beginning of the book as it describes the way G‑d instructed Moses to count the Jewish people.
The counting would be of the men who were “from 20 years old and upward.” What is the significance of waiting for the people to reach the age of 20 to be counted?
The Book of Samuel records King David’s ill-fated counting of the Jews. According to Nachmanides, King David’s error was that he counted them from the age of 13, the age of Bar Mitzvah, and not from the age of 20.
The question can be raised, why not start counting at the age of 13, the age of adulthood?
The Torah seems to addressing this when it refers to those to be counted as “all of those who are fit to go out to the army.” However, this raises another question, why only count the ones who of age of conscription and not earlier?
Similarly, we must understand the reference Nachmanides makes to the words of Ethics of the Fathers in this regard: “The age of 20 is pursuit [of a livelihood].” Here too it is necessary to clarify why the pursuit of a livelihood is an important benchmark for one to be counted, but not earlier.
From Circumcision to Good Deeds
To answer these questions we must refer to the traditional blessing we recite at the time of a baby’s circumcision: “Just as he has entered into the covenant, so too shall he enter into Torah, marriage [literally: “chupah-the wedding canopy] and good deeds.”
Many are puzzled by two glaring problems in this blessing.
First, why does it leave out the age of Bar Mitzvah? It should have said “may you enter in Torah, Bar Mitzvah and good deeds.”
Second, why does it mention good deeds last? Doesn’t a child already perform good deeds? Certainly good deeds are performed before marriage?
One way of understanding these four stages of circumcision, Torah, marriage and good deeds  is that circumcision represents the first entry into Mitzvos, inasmuch as it is the first opportunity for a person to bind himself to G‑d through a Mitzvah-commandment. Once we highlight the role of a Mitzvah it is no longer necessary to mention Bar Mitzvah because it is subsumed in the category and stage of circumcision. In fact, circumcision is the most dramatic Mitzvah because it is the only Mitzvah actually performed in the flesh and which leaves an indelible mark for life.
The next stage is Torah. One of the first things that a child is taught when he or she begins to talk is the verse “Moses commanded the Torah to us as an inheritance to the assembly of Jacob,” among other Torah verses.
In fact, the Torah that a child learns is the purest form of Torah study. The Talmud states that the world stands on the pure and innocent breath of a child’s Torah learning, which is superior to the Torah learning of great and holy scholars.
The next stage is Marriage because that is when our soul is made complete by reuniting with its other half, as the Zohar so beautifully describes marriage. Even with circumcision and Torah, the soul cannot tackle the challenges of life unless it realizes all of its potential through marriage.
While many single people are able to excel in life, it is because they learn to compensate and develop collateral ways of channeling the Divine energy into their bodies. However, G‑d designed the world to operate with the conventional approach of marriage in order to access one’s full spiritual resources.
However, even with the full measure of spiritual energy at marriage (which traditionally took place on or close to one’s 18th birthday, as stated in the above citation in Ethics of the Fathers) a person is not really ready to change the outside world to prepare it for its ultimate objective: making the physical world a “dwelling-place” for G‑d. To accomplish that feat, one needs the added vitality that comes along at the age of 20.
The number 20 is associated with G‑d’s Crown in our mystical literature. (The word for 20 in Hebrew is esrim, which, gematria teaches us, has the same numeric value as the word Keser-Crown. Also, the initial of the word Keser is the letter chof, which is also the number 20 in Hebrew numbers.) To transform the world we need to be endowed with G‑d’s Crown.
Conquering the World
We can now understand the connection between the age of 20 and good deeds. We’re not talking simply about performing a Mitzvah. That begins at the age of eight days, when a child is circumcised and continues on throughout one’s life. The Mitzvos that we perform until the age of 20 years connect us to G‑d and fortify our souls, but their impact on the world is indirect, because our soul has not fully descended into the physical world and is incapable of accessing the Divine Crown.
The age of 20 is, thus, the time for the soul to enter us in full, enabling us to tackle the challenges of the real world because, as a general rule, at 20 the person has been fully equipped for that battle.
We therefore wish for the newborn at his bris that he make the successful transition from the soul’s initial entry into the world to the time when it will be able to fulfill the ultimate purpose for its descent into this world; to “conquer” the world by making it a dwelling place for G‑d. This entails refining our untamed and divisive world into a good and holy one fully receptive to the one G‑d.
This, then, is the meaning of “good deeds.” It doesn’t simply mean Mitzvos in general because Mitzvah observance begins at circumcision. It means actions that bring the goodness to the world at large. Perhaps this idea is implicit in the word for “deeds,” “ma’asim,” which could also be translated as “coercive” actions. To tame a resistant and hostile world naturally requires a measure of “coercion.”
This also explains the reference in Ethics of the Fathers to “twenty years for pursuit [of a livelihood.]” Pursuit in this context refers to pursuit of the material world for the purpose of conquering it by elevating it.
Preparing for the Building of the Bais Hamikdash
King David made his count of the Jewish people right before he purchased Mount Moriah, the location of the future Bais Hamikdash, upon which he built an altar. We may speculate that David’s motive for counting the Jewish people was his desire to elicit the deepest soul powers of the Jewish people as a preparation for the building of the Bais Hamikdash. Counting them was intended by him as a spiritual mechanism to harness their combined soul powers.
We can now gain some insight into Nachmanides’ statement that David’s mistake was to count them at the age of 13. While 13 is commonly recognized as the age of maturity and responsibility, it was premature of him to include them in the count, before they could access the power of “G‑d’s Crown” and help make the world a dwelling place for G‑d. This indeed, was the entire purpose of building a physical structure in which G‑d would dwell. The Holy Temple was intended to be a microcosm of the entire world and set the stage for the Messianic Age, in which G‑d’s Crown will be revealed fully within the context of the physical world.