Biblical commentators have puzzled for centuries over Moses’ numerous countings of the Jewish people. In Hebrew, the book of Torah is called Bamidbar (In the Desert), but its name in the Talmud is “The Book of Counting” (Sotah 36b). We know it as Numbers, because of the repeated census-takings in this book.
Even stranger, Moses did not initiate these countings, they were requested by God. But surely the omnipotent creator knew the results before the counting began. And even if, for whatever reason, it was necessary for Moses to know the result, why not simply spare Moses the trouble and inform him exactly how many Jews there were?
Making this even more perplexing is that Judaism generally frowns on counting people, which is why one hears in shul “not one, not two…” when counting for a minyan. Additionally, according to the noted Jewish comedian Jackie Mason, having your child grow up to be an accountant is only the reluctant third choice for Jewish parents. “If he’s brilliant, a doctor. Second choice, a lawyer. And if he’s got no brains at all, an accountant.”
Yet it seems God tried to make Moses, the rabbi par excellence, into an accountant. In Exodus we find Moses being told to count the Jews, followed by an accounting of every last donation of gold, silver and copper for the tabernacle. And now he’s asked to count the people again?
Furthermore, we find later in history that God disapproved of King David’s census-taking. So we are left to wonder why, in the time when it was most unnecessary, since God was in communication with Moses as with no other human in history, do the most countings take place?
The great biblical commentator Rashi (1040-1105) provides an interesting psychological insight. Counting something shows affection and attachment even when one knows precisely the end result of the counting. (Think of the thing people like to count the most often). Thus the entire exercise is a demonstration of God’s affection for his people — he wants them to know he’s keeping count of them. And each one is of value.
Additionally, our sages compare the relationship between God and the Jewish people to a marriage of a bride and groom. Relationship experts remind couples to reaffirm through word and deed how much they mean to each other, even though both parties certainly know they already love each other and are acutely aware of their commitment to each other. How much more so in the marriage between us and God, where we don’t (always) get immediate feedback from the Almighty. It means the world to us to know that God does not take the relationship for granted.
This gives us an added insight into the importance of daily prayer. For many, it’s a tedious and redundant ritual, and we can wonder why we need to mouth the same words every day when God already knows what’s in our hearts and minds? But the conversation isn’t a one-way street. We need to realize that it’s important for us to reaffirm to our spouse what we want communicated to us constantly — that we are loved, and that we matter. For no matter how many times we have heard and said those precious words, one can never tell loved ones “I love you” too many times.
Especially poignant, this weekend is our wedding anniversary (number 3327) in that we celebrate the festival of Shavuot, marking the revelation at Sinai and God’s giving of the Torah to the Jewish people. The Talmud teaches that this awesome moment was actually our wedding, with Mount Sinai serving as a wedding canopy and the Ten Commandments as the ketubah.
There is beautiful prayer we recite every morning while donning the tefillin that reaffirms our relationship with God as the greatest love story in history. Taken from the final verses in this week’s haftorah from the Prophet Hosea, it is a love poem where, in a sense, we renew our wedding vows every day.
“And I will betroth you to me forever, and I will betroth you to me with righteousness, justice, kindness, and mercy. I will betroth you to me with fidelity, and you shall know (me) the Lord.”
Rabbi Shlomo Zarchi is the spiritual leader of Congregation Chevra Thilim in San Francisco. He can be reached at [email protected]