Based upon a Shiur given by Rabbi David Lapin
For the most part, Torah observant Jews proudly boast large families. Are they destroying the world as we know it?
Thomas Robert Malthus was the second of eight children. It was a large family, and he apparently resented it. His theories are known as Malthusian ideology. This doctrine sees all major social problems - poverty, hunger, political instability, and environmental destruction - as due to population growth, and posits that population control thus represents a key solution. "In October 1838, that is, fifteen months after I had begun my systematic inquiry, I happened to read for amusement Malthus on Population…” wrote Charles Darwin in his biography, where he proceeded to describe the great influence that Malthus had on his thinking - particularly on his theory of natural selection. In 1978 a book called “The 100: A Ranking of the Most Influential Persons in History,” placed Malthus at number 80 in this worldwide ranking. Was Thomas Malthus right or wrong? Will large families lead to the world’s demise?
During the reign of King David (Samuel II 24) a devastating mistake was made. David decided to count the Jewish people, and did so in no special way. Halacha tells us that it is permissible to count the number of raised hands in a room, but not the people themselves. (Talmud Yoma 22b, Magen Avraham 156) We cannot count people. But David did. And the Jews were hit with a death wave in which 70,000 (!) men died from one end of the nation to the other. Our sages tell us (Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer 43) that in fact only one person died. His name was Avishai Ben Tzeruyah, and though he was only one man, he was worth 70,000. It sounds a bit unusual to refer to one person as 70,000; what is the message – and why does Scripture choose to teach us the value of this man especially now?
The Torah tells us that if the Jewish people are counted in an ordinary fashion, it will cause a plague. G-d therefore directs Moses to count the Jews in an unusual way wherein each person gives a coin. The coins will then be counted, and the census with thus be accomplished without pestilence. Why does this solve the problem? And what was the problem to begin with?
It is forbidden to count Jews. The reason is really quite simple; you have no idea what anyone else is worth. One person may be worth far more than another. To count people as equally valuable is simply incorrect. David made that mistake – but he learned his lesson when he lost one man who was worth 70,000. How beautifully does G-d make every punishment fit the offense! We count people based upon what they have contributed to society. That is really what life is about. “He who detests gifts is truly alive,” stated Solomon the great King David’s son. We can count everyone only if they give something – for a gift can be quantified. When Moses counted his people, each one gave something of himself, and that was counted. Thus, nobody had to be taken away.
Avishai’s passing is referred to as “70,000 from one end of the nation to another!” (In Hebrew, “Dan to Beersheba.”) Now that we know that it was one man and he certainly lived in only one city at a time, how are we to understand this statement? The message is the same. God took one man, whose positive influence affected the length and breath of his nation, and taught us a lesson for posterity. One man can span a nation, from Dan to Beersheba. (Biur Radal ibid)
Overpopulation is dangerous in a society of takers. When people consume more than they produce, each new person is just another liability. But when people are innovative, and givers, when people produce more than they consume - the more the merrier! The Torah’s focus is always the obligation, rather than the right. An obligation to tithe is stressed, rather than the Levites right to receive it. Our aim must be to produce a society of givers, and builders. We must fulfill the Torah’s commandment to be fruitful and multiply. After all, it is only when we are fruitful, that our multiplying and overpopulation can truly have any meaning.