May 19, 2023 / 28 Iyar 5783 Parshat Bamidbar

Counting!  Let us count the ways.  Let’s see. . . 

Banking online, “Please enter your account number, followed by the pound sign.”

Upon finally reaching the receptionist at the doctor’s office by phone, “What is your birth date?” before asking my name.

Weight, width, height, volume, distance, dosages, poll results, and, of course, censuses to determine demographics, among an endless list. 

As Rabbi Joe Skloot reminds us: The world knows us by our SSNs and PINs.  Job performance and health are quantified and compared.  We rank and rate universities, restaurants, wine, cars, and even dates.  It goes without saying that quantification makes large amounts of data easier to categorize and understand.  But, being reduced to mere numbers also has the effect of obscuring beauty, individuality, and difference.  We only have to think of the Nazis’ practice of tattooing numbers on our parents, grandparents, or great-grandparents, and we shudder in horror. 

 Perhaps, the dehumanizing quality of quantification is the reason Jews have generally frowned on counting people.  I remember an Orthodox Hebrew school teacher of mine counting our class by whispering, “Not one, not two, not three, etc. . . “  This concept goes back to the Talmud (Yoma 22b), where it is taught that it is prohibited to count the Jewish people, even in order to do a mitzvah.

Yet, in this week’s parsha, God instructs Moses to take a census of the whole Israelite community, “by their clan, by their ancestral houses, according to the names of every male, 20 years or older, head by head,” ostensibly to assess the number of males fit to battle Israel’s enemy and constitute a regular army.

Medieval commentator, Nachmanides, suggests that Moses never did count individual Israelites, but rather collected and counted shekels (the Israeli currency that is used today in fact) of those of age and gender from each of the twelve tribes.  

Rashi, another medieval commentor is not about a census for bureaucratic expediency, and which can make an individual invisible or even dehumanize them.  For Rashi, God counts human beings out of love and caring, to point out each person and ensure they are protected and not forgotten.

So, counting, sorting, weighing, measuring – all can serve important purposes.  Sefer B’midbar, the Book of Numbers, opens with an eye to order.  The Israelites, only recently freed from slavery, dwell in a wilderness near Mt. Sinai.  Soon they are to enter a new and hitherto unknown land.  God commands Moses to take a census, and also to have the people arrange themselves by tribe in areas for camping and for marching formation, with clear instructions as to who will transport the movable sanctuary and how. 

We can think of some real benefits here of making meaning of numbers beyond what the numbers themselves, at first blush, reveal: 

*It seems to me that, most important, when the counting itself is done with humility and intentionality, those who are counted can feel seen, known, and valued. 

*In the process of the Israelite census, the men who were counted learned their role, clarified that they were part of a family and a tribe, of an army, of a people.  At a time of uncertainty in the desert, their identities were established and their personhood was validated.

*Any gathering of more than one individual requires some level of sorting out who goes where and who does what, giving participants clarity and readiness to take the next step together.  Floor plans, committees (both executive and worker-bees), labeling – I like to think that this chapter offers blueprints for today’s synagogues and congregations, even the structures needed for the greater community to function effectively. 

The text even specifies how Moses is to approach the census.  S’u et rosh kol adat B’nei Yisrael – “Lift up the heads of the whole Israelite company.”  On the surface, the rabbis understood that counting over the centuries was done with a tap on the head (meaning no finger pointing).  And, if we understand the verse to include Moses, God is reminding him to be the leader he was meant to be, sometimes an insurmountable challenge for the great Moses, that is – compassionate, patient, humble, and hopeful about Israel’s future.  Psychologist Rabbi Edwin Friedman of blessed memory offers leadership advice to Moses in this context: “Stick your neck out sometimes!  Take clearly defined positions.  Invite those who disagree to continue to communicate and engage them with kindness.”  I certainly take this advice to heart!

True to our interpretive tradition, let’s call the head-lifting action a metaphor for deeper human values:

*When we stand straight and look up, we exude confidence in our stature, our voice, and our identity.  And every Israelite got to look at Moses eye to eye, as if there was no hierarchy.  Just think of the opposite here.  When we fail to see the person in front of us or be curious about them, we fall into the potential danger of just counting, that is, not seeing what is beyond ourself, not acknowledging the other. 

*The eye-to-eye image begs Moses to ask each one their name and tribe, and, as a leader, Moses is showing that each one matters.  Moreover, in engaging with a person while counting them invites hidden blessings to emerge.  Imagine – the act of counting and naming can be such a holy practice!

*For our time, lifting up our heads is a way of showing courage and being an upstander, not just a bystander.  Our world has become a dangerous place.  We are witnessing antisemitism, disastrous climate changes, gun violence, among innumerable challenges to living fruitful and long lives.  S’u  – “lift up” is a plural verb – we are not alone, but in community, supporting each other to literally or metaphorically stand up with courage and strength.

*A final understanding of S’u et rosh – “Be uplifted and uplift others.”  A Chasidic teaching offers that the counting of Israel points upward.  The text commands, “Lift the head,” not simply “Count.”  This lifting raised people up to the highest rungs of awe and love, directing their hearts to the Divine as echoed in Psalm 121: “I lift my eyes to the mountains and receive strength from above.” 

When thinking of who counts and who matters for every Jew and non-Jew alike, I am reminded of Rabbi Nachman of Bratislav’s eternal, integral and very comforting connection between self, other, and God. 

Going forward may you uplift yourself through the ways that nourish you, and with God’s sheltering presence, may your spiritual strength uplift others.  Shabbat Shalom!

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