The Torah column is supported by a generous donation from Eve Gordon-Ramek in memory of Kenneth Gordon.
The Book of Numbers begins with another census of the Children of Israel. It was exactly a year and 15 days since the Exodus from Egypt and it was already the third time that Moses was commanded to count the standing army of Israel.
Rashi, the foremost Medieval commentator, suggests that it demonstrates God’s love for the people that He chooses to count them often, the way that a collector of something precious will revisit their collection over and over.
There are a number of verbs that are used in the Hebrew text to describe the act of counting. The first one is s’ooh (Numbers 1:2), which can also be translated as “lift up.” This connotes more than just arriving at a sum; it implies that when one counts, one lifts up the individuals and brings them to a higher place or a higher purpose.
The synonym that is used in the very next verse is tifkedu. In fact, the Sages refer to the Book of Numbers as Sefer HaPikudim (literally the Book of Countings) which comes from the exact Hebrew root.
The derivatives of this word also suggest that counting itself can ascribe purpose. The same root in Hebrew also means “job, position, role.”
The Haamek Davar, Rav Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin (1816-1893), suggests that the words imply that there was not only a census to know the number of the population, but there was a counting to know how many leaders existed within each tribe so that they could be organized into divisions, as we read in the parashah Yitro. There were heads of thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens. R. Berlin suggests that the first word of s’ooh implies taking stock of the leadership.
It seems clear that counting is much more than just acquiring data so that one has an accurate sum of disparate parts.
Perhaps there is insight on the nature of counting from the seasonal mitzvah that we are currently experiencing, the Counting of the Omer.
In Leviticus 23:15, we are commanded to count the seven weeks from the day following Passover until the day of Shavuot. The mitzvah is merely to count the days and to count the weeks. In doing so, we are forming a collective out of those days and ascribing purpose to them.
When we left Egypt, we were slaves without much of a spiritual connection to God. The Hebrews knew that God was going to redeem them eventually, but they had little other vestiges of a relationship to their Creator.
By the time they reached Mount Sinai and the Revelation, 50 days had passed in which the nation was to become appropriately worthy of receiving the Torah. Each one of those days allowed for a spiritual ascension that culminated in the presentation of the Ten Commandments.
This upward spiritual climb is hinted at by the offerings that are described in the same chapter of Leviticus. The Omer offering consists of a measure (omer) of barley which was more commonly used as animal fodder.
We count 49 days from that offering until we complete seven weeks and can then celebrate the receiving of the Torah the following day on Shavuot.
On Shavuot, there is an unusual meal offering of two fine loaves of flour made from wheat. Those loaves represent refined food that is reserved for humans. In fact, we are usually prohibited from bringing offerings that are leavened, with the exception of a thanksgiving offering. In this case, we are specifically commanded to bring loaves of bread to demonstrate that we have risen in our spiritual journey to the point of refinement.
We are no longer acting like animals as we did under slavery, but we can tap into our human qualities. By counting the days from the Omer offering, we are ascribing purpose to them and infusing them with meaning so that we do not lose our intentionality in our quest to form a relationship with God.
In a similar fashion, the counting of the Jewish people that takes place in the wilderness is a process of ascribing meaning and purpose to each and every individual.
The context of the count in our parashah is critical.
The people have just spent a year developing a relationship with God. They have been taught an enormous number of laws that can shape their national identity and allow them to forge their destiny as a holy nation. Now they are about to embark on their journey to reach the Promised Land and fulfill that sense of purpose. Now is the time to count the people and ascribe them with purpose.
Here in Northern California, we currently are living in a reality that does not fit within the paradigm of what we understood as living within society.
We have been isolated as individuals or as families. It is expected that in the near future, the order to shelter in place will be lifted and we can slowly begin to associate with each other as a community.
It seems like now is the perfect time to count ourselves as members of the Jewish people and make sure that when we do return to an outside world, we understand our shared sense of purpose and our collective destiny.