This week's Torah portion Bamidbar, the first chapters of the Book of Numbers, open with the census of the Israelite men in the Sinai Desert, in order to prepare for the battle to reach and conquer the Promised Land. It is identical with the one recorded in Exodus 30. God says to Moses "Take a census of the whole Israelite community, by the clans of its ancestral houses, listing the names, every male, head by head" (Numbers 12). The Hebrew for take a census literally means to “lift the head.” Although the purpose of the census was purely functional, the Midrash uncovers another meaning for it. Midrash explains that God is like a person who has a store of precious jewels. From time to time, the person takes out the jewels and counts them, taking pleasure in their beauty and to be reassured that they are all there. Rashi further explains the census taking as a relationship between God and the God’s people. God counts them and by extension us, because God loves us. That love has two aspects- communal and individual. It is directed both to the corporal entity, the Israelite community as a whole, and to each person individually, whose name is listed separately. On one level what matters is the whole people who function almost as interchangeable ciphers; on another, each person has the individuality implicit in his name.
The total 603,550, however, falls far short of "the whole Israelite community," for it includes only men, twenty years of age and older, excluding the Levites, who are to be counted separately and the women and children who are not be counted at all. Clearly, the motivation for this census stems from the need to establish a military. The Torah exempts the Levites whose cultic roles take precedence over the needs of an army. All the men over twenty are counted, regardless of their personal status, health, intelligence, physical strength, age or any other factor which might make them either permanently or temporarily unsuited.
Does Rashi, whose children were daughters, assume that God's special love extended only to the fighting men and the male Levites? Unlikely. Yet the absence of women and children from "the whole Israelite community" warrants neither mention nor explanation. It is a given. We could let this pass without comment were the command only to list those eligible for the potential army because women and children might not have been as useful as soldiers. But God first couches the request in the broadest terms, only to modify and limit it in the next utterance.
Who is to be counted is not a question with an obvious answer. For the purposes of determining representation, the United States Constitution originally stipulated that slaves were to be counted as three–fifths of a person. In Article One we learn that "Representatives [...] shall be apportioned [...] according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons [...] three fifths of all other Persons." Today are not the heated arguments over the decennial census in this country, on one level, a continuation of the tension over who really counts? Numbers play a big role in our lives: from the politics in Florida two elections ago, to Rowe v. Wade to the surveys of Jews who are unaffiliated or converting out. We are still counting and taking censes.
The ingenuity of the Jewish calendar most often has us start the Book of Numbers as we finish numbering the Omer, the forty–nine day period from the second night of Pesach until the night before Shavuot. We count the days and the weeks so that we will complete the biblically ordained seven complete weeks (Leviticus 23:15) which separate these two spring festivals.
Just as counting people is not a rote pursuit, so do we find purpose in counting days. As humans we are challenged to invest each of our limited days with meaning. The Psalmist asks of God "Teach us to count our days rightly that we might obtain a wise heart" (90:12). The twentieth–century Israeli poet Leah Goldberg writes "Indeed I know this is a day without any counterpart, / [...] and no mark and no omen ranging from good to evil / Separates it from other days." In the rush of our days it often seems that one indistinguishable day follows the next, but Goldberg proceeds to resolve her apparent paradox by noticing what is special about this day "And only that the sun has the scent of jasmine ..." Both days and people warrant the attention to their distinctiveness that enables us to appreciate them.
As we count the days leading up to Shavuot, the Matan Torah, it is easy to imagine ourselves in the place of our Biblical ancestors, camping at Sinai. Our Torah tells us that the Israelites wash their clothes, take measures to purify themselves and remain pure. Husbands and wives remain separate for three days as they count the moment, waiting for God to appear to the people and give them the commandments. On the third day, surrounded by the greatest laser light show in history- thunder, lightning, fire and smoke- God spoke to the Israelites for the first time. So says the Torah, “The entire people saw the thunder and flames, the sound of the shofar and the smoking mountain; the people saw and stood at a distance. They then said to Moses, “You speak to us and we will listen; let God not speak to us lest we die.”
So great was the experience of revelation that although thunder is usually just a sound, the nation was able to transcend their corporeal nature and could see the thunder. Just as we are rendered speechless at intensely moving moments of our lives- watching a son marry his beloved under a chuppah, passing the Torah to a daughter, watching a child sleep, so too were our ancestors rendered speechless at Sinai. The moment is so fiercely overwhelming, that the Israelites step away, asking Moses to be their intermediary- to feel those feelings for them. Never again do the people have the opportunity to hear God’s voice in the same way.
Yet revelation is not limited to what happened at Mount Sinai. God reveals God self each and every day in the rising of the sun, our interactions with our colleagues, friends and loved ones, through studying Torah. We may not hear God’s voice, but we feel God’s presence in the private still, small moment, or in the grandeur of a day that we have organized. God slips between the cracks and when we least expect to, we feel the most. Each experience is a precious one that allows us to realize that we matter, that we count to God. That we are not a number, but a name and a face and a personality. We are God’s children.
May we attempt, as we approach the end of the Omer and the census of Numbers, to see the value of every individual and to invest each day with meaning. Zeh hayom asah Adonai, zeh ha’ish asah Adonai- this is the day, this is the person that God has made--- nagilah v’nismcha bo- may we rejoice and be happy in it. We count; we matter, not only to each other but also to God.