Thursday, 06 Jun 2024

Written by Andrea Kulikovsky, LBC rabbinical student

Who counts?

We begin a new book, a new chapter on the story of the Bnei Israel. After receiving the laws and building the tabernacle, we are ready to move. However, before moving, we have to be counted again.

There were already other censuses of the Bnei Israel before, in different occasions in the book of Exodus, as Rashi, medieval French sage, explains. So why is it important to count the people again? According to Rashi, God counts the people out of compassion. How many left Egypt? How many were left after the Golden Calf episode? How many were there when the tabernacle was ready? How many men, ready to fight, are there so that the people can journey through the desert?

In Bamidbar 1 this counting is very specific: Israelite men, older than twenty years old, who are able to bear arms. Those are the ones who are counted at this moment. Women, children, elderly people and the general population that accompanied the Bnei Israel through their journey weren’t counted. The total amount of men enrolled in this counting was 603,550 – those were, at that point, according to the Torah, the number of men who could serve the army of the Bnei Israel at that time.

As explained by 13th century poet and Islamic scholar Rumi: “You are not a drop in the ocean. You are the entire ocean, in a drop.” As progressive Jews, we cannot accept that this census represents the whole people that counted, as being included. For once, we should read the text literally: this only refers to the military population; the whole population was bigger, possibly more than a million, when women, children and elderly people would be added to the account.

When instructing the counting of the people, the text says “s’u et rosh kol adat Bnei Israel”, which literally means “lift up the head of the whole congregation of the children of Israel”. The men were counted by their names, which was different than the counting by the half-shekel. Our sages explain that this means that it indicates greatness, proudness. The people, with their heads held high, were counted by who they were as individual people, within their clans, within the totality of the tribe. This indicated their stature and character, their uniqueness.

Although only soldiers made into the number used to represent the people at this point of the saga, certainly the remaining children of Israel were there, heads held high, prepared to face the dangers of the desert together. Each and every one, with their unique characteristics and their special place in the complex fabric of the tribe. Children representing the future, the generation that would enter the Promised Land. Elders representing the history that had to be taught so that every generation would be able to feel like they had left Egypt themselves. Women representing the stability of that community: cooking, raising children, weaving fabrics, holding the fort while the men went to war.

“And that, ultimately, was the purpose of this census. To send a clear message to every single Jew: you are not merely a statistic or a number, but someone who is valued, precious, and essential.”, teaches North American Rabbi Daniel Fox. Each person was lifted, was taught that they were special, unique, and had a name among the people of Israel. A name they made for themselves, a name connected to their families, a name that indicated who each one was and that they belonged.

Since October 7 we learned very sad and different ways of counting. We learned to count children, youngsters, adults, elderly; men and women who were killed by terrorists. We learned to count children, youngsters, adults, elderly; men and women who were kidnaped by terrorists dead or alive. We learned to count women and children who were exchanged in hostage deals, we are counting bodies that are found and brought back to Israel.

We learn in Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5 that “anyone who destroys a life is considered by Scripture to have destroyed an entire world; and anyone who saves a life is as if he saved an entire world.”. The stories and particularities of each one of the now 125 remaining Israeli hostages held captive in Gaza are being shared and cherished through social media. They are being counted daily, as they are, not as numbers, but by their names.

As members of our people, we bring our experiences, our stories, our personal characteristics that allow us to be unique in our contributions. Although the equality represented by the half shekel is important as a humble reminder that we are not whole without the other, without the community that surrounds us, being counted by our names shows us that there is something different that we bring to the whole.

The very important balance that we need to seek is to be equally counted in our singular way of being. It is our individual responsibility to show up, lift our heads and take part. It is up to each one of us to bring our names to the census of our communities, and to make sure that everyone is equally counted and never forgotten. However, it is the job of each of our Progressive communities to guarantee a place of belonging to each one of the people that show up to be part, to contribute with their half shekel and their names.

Every person is the whole ocean, the whole world. No matter if they are battling on the front or holding the fort. No matter if they are present or held away from their families and communities. No matter if we are dead or alive, free or captives, each one of us counts in a very special way. We just need to hold our heads high and make ourselves and others be counted.

Andrea Kulikovsky, LBC rabbinical student

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.