Parashat Hashavua for Bamidbar
Rabbi Stan Zamek
United Jewish Congregation of Hong Kong
This is a time of counting. We are in the midst of the Counting of the Omer. This is a hopeful, anticipatory kind of enumeration. Each increase in the count brings us closer to Shavuot and to the satisfying conclusion of our yearly journey from slavery to the ultimate freedom of Sinai.
At the same time, for far too long, we have been engaged in a very different, fearful counting. The Covid-19 era has us obsessed with numbers. How many new cases? How many days since the last local transmission? How many may gather together? How many days to go in our or a loved one’s quarantine?
Amidst all this joyful and fearful counting, we read Parashat Bamidbar this week, which is also all about the numbers:
On the first day of the second month, in the second year following the exodus from the land of Egypt, the LORD spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the Tent of Meeting, saying: Take a census of the whole Israelite community by the clans of its ancestral houses, listing the names, every male, head by head.
The plain sense of the text is that this is a purely practical undertaking. As Jacob Milgrom explains in the JPS Torah Commentary: Take a census— That is, for the purpose of military conscription. Such censuses were frequent occurrences during the monarchy. A head count of the troops was always taken before a campaign and at its conclusion. . . This ancient institution was indispensable for any government levy upon persons or property.
Our teachers, however, see something more here than a mere bureaucratic process. Rashi notes that this is not the first time a census has been commanded. Why is God so fond of the practice? Rashi says it is because God is so fond of us: Out of their dearness to God, God counts them continually.
The force of this interpretation cannot be confined to the immediate context of men of military age. Neither can Isaac Arama’s understanding of why this count is to be done L’gulg’lotam— head by head. The point of this noggin by noggin tally is that it is personal, for they were not just animals or material objects, but each one had an importance of his own like a king or priest and that indeed God had shown special love towards them.
A census, even one mandated by God, is a human enterprise. The demand here is that we go about our mortal business in the world while maintaining a God’s-eye view of humanity. We do this by contemplating and internalizing what it means to say that we are created b’tzelem Elohim, in the Divine image.
This concept is our tradition’s most radical statement of human equality and also of the uniqueness and infinite preciousness of every soul. When we assert that we are all made b’tzelem Elohim we invalidate all the invidious distinctions that divide us.
Such truths cannot be evaded. They present themselves even in the most mundane moments. Lately, when I need a temporary escape from this new reality that Covid-19 has created, I flee into the world of Michael Connelly’s hard-boiled detective novels. As I was walking the other day, happily immersed in the audio version of one of Connelly’s stories, I realized that Detective Harry Bosch was talking Torah. Bosch was explaining why he worked so hard to get justice for crime victims most people could not bring themselves to care about. He said: Everybody counts or nobody does. . . That’s my rule.
Amen Harry. Everybody does count, which means that although people can be counted, they cannot be reduced to dry, soulless numbers. Behind each number in the headlines, there is a face. There is a name. There is a life. In our anxiety, in our understandable focus on those closest to us, it is possible to forget this. We cannot count as God does, with infinite and equal love for every soul, but the Torah insists that we try. Everybody counts or nobody does.