By Reb David
We open the Book of Numbers to our ancestors’ second year wandering the Sinai desert. They are instructed to take a census of all the people, and to count in special detail the clans serving as Levitical priests. What’s the big deal, and why should we care now?
Counting people in the Jewish tradition is no trivial matter: Talmud forbids it (B.T. Yoma 22b). Mindless counting obscures the uniqueness of every individual, each carrying nitzutz eloha (a divine spark) of the Creator (Gen. 1:27). As the prophet Hosea taught, we are to be as uncountable as the sand at the sea’s edge (Hosea 2:1). This is the same promise that God made to Abraham, that his progeny will be as the stars of the sky and sands of the sea (Gen. 22:17). Mindlessly counting people belies these promises and denies the holiness of each person’s soul. In modern times, as tribute to the Holocaust when millions had numbers burned onto their arms, some Jews won’t count people even to determine a minyan (a group of at least 10 adults forming a traditional prayer community). Rather, they use a 10-word phrase to denote the number of people – anything to avoid counting people as generic objects.
And yet, this week’s Torah portion memorializes a census, so that the needs of the people and the Levitical servants can be determined. Plainly God can order a census, so perhaps we learn that counting people is a task best left to God. But counting seems an inescapable part of human life: a minyan, membership dues, voting, dinner invites, budgets – so many routine details of getting things done in the 21st century – depend on counting people.
Perhaps we can receive this week’s story of the first census as a reminder to not only count with care but also make our caring count. If the reason not to mindlessly count people is to protect their holy individuality, then we should do exactly that – treat each person as a holy spark, a unique and irreplaceable individual. Let us take great care in generalizing, lumping people together and ignoring difference. If the reason for a census is to serve people and their needs (from the physical to the spiritual), then let’s make this service count in all we do.
During this week in the annual journey from Passover to Shavuot, we are counting the Omer, the 49 days between liberation from Egyptian bondage and the revelation at Sinai. During these seven weeks, we count the days (Lev. 23:15-16) for several reasons – as a reminder to make each day count, to realize the hope that mindfulness about the flow of time will open the heart to wisdom (Ps. 90:12), and to prepare ourselves to receive Torah anew on Shavuot.
So in this time of counting, let us recommit to counting our days, our blessings and each day’s chances to uplift the spark in another person. What better way to make these days count?