Who counts, what counts, and who does the counting?

The tragedy at the Sarona outdoor market earlier this month was an all-too-familiar pattern: what we heard first were the numbers — how many wounded and then, as always follows, how many of those wounded had succumbed to the wounds. The death of four. But no, not the death of “four”. The death of:

  • Michael Feige, a highly respected academic at BGU and a former visiting professor at Brandeis, and beloved colleague and friend to many in our community.
  • Ido Ben Ari, father of two and ex-commando from Ramat Gan;
  • Ilana Naveh, a mother of four from Tel Aviv;
  • Mila Mishayev, from Rishon LeZion, a woman about to be married

After the attack, I wrote to my friend and colleague, Dr. Rivka Carmi, the President of Ben Gurion University, to express my condolences. “The funeral took place this afternoon,” she wrote, and it was awfully sad and heart breaking. This is our life here where the only place of consensus is the cemetery.” I will come back to my reply to Rivka.

For now, I want to think about counting.

Why this focus on counting? We are surrounded by counting — having recently completed s’firat ha-Omer (the counting of the weeks between Passover and Shavuot) and read the Torah portion Bamidbar. Every year Shavuot and Bamidbar are proximate; not only as this year when Shabbat is the very day before Shavuot. And the juxtaposition is powerful — in Bamidbar we are leaving Har (Mount) Sinai; on Shavuot, we are arriving at Har Sinai. We counted days on our way to Sinai these past seven weeks. And this morning we read how B’nai Yisrael counted people on their way from Sinai. Why all this counting? As Einstein is supposed to have said (although the quote is more reliably credited to sociologist William Bruce Cameron) “not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.” In the context of counting people, we have a deep vein of superstitions that include not drawing the attention of the Ayin HaRa, the evil eye. So why all this counting?

Literal meaning of the purpose of the census in this week’s portion can be learned from the Rashbam (Rashi’s grandson): the census is taking to determine the number of available soldiers, because the Israelites are about to go into the land of Canaan and will need to fight. The fact that those counted are only over 20 years of age lends support to this. Indeed it almost seems straight-forward.

But this is neither the first nor the last census in Tanach (Bible). Not all censuses are the same — and not all are good. The first census is in the portion Ki Tissa and it involves the counting by the one-half shekel that each Israelite is obligated to bring. (Ex. 30: 11-16). This is what we read on Shabbat Shekelim, just before Purim. The census of the half shekel achieved two things — a census of B’nai Yisrael and tax revenue for the building and upkeep of the mishkan (tabernacle). The connection between these two is not obvious. The Ramban emphasizes that it is the Shekelim that should be counted not the people themselves. This is fully in keeping with our wariness toward counting people, leading up to find a surrogate to count — here the half-shekel contributed by each. Abravanel gives a different explanation, separating the counting from the giving of the half-shekel. Whereas the giving of the half-shekel is a free-standing and on-going obligation, the counting in the desert at the time was a one-off occurrence. We can infer that the Rambam would agree. It is noteworthy that the Sefer ha-Hinunch, based on the Rambam’s ordering of all the commandments in his Sefer ha-Mitzvot, records a mitzvah of the half-shekel for parashat Ki Tissa but not a single mitzvah for parashat Bamidbar. We are left with an uneasiness of counting people

There is the famous wrongful census taken by King David (II Samuel 24:2-10). David orders Yoav, the sar ha-Khayil (literally Captain of the host — or for us, a mixture of Chair of Joint Chiefs of Staff of the military and the President’s own Chief of Staff) to go throughout the land — Dan to Beer-Sheva — and count the population so that David might know it. Yoav tells David that he hopes the people will continue to grow and that David might see this occur but he warns David against this project and asks him “lamah hafetz badavar hazeh?” (“why do you delight in this?). Yet Yoav follows order and proceeds to take the census. And then David has what we might call a crisis of conscience. We read vayech lev-David oto. David’s heart smote him, after he numbered the people. Why?

The Ramban — who recall believes that counting and the half-shekel are connected — asks why Yoav did not use the half-shekel to take the court. That would have solved everything. I find a more nuanced and persuasive answer from the Ralbag, Gersonides, who observed that this was David placing faith in numbers before faith in God. This was about David’s ego, and ultimately David knew it.

We might push the Ralbag one step further. In asserting his power by counting his people, David wasn’t only showing a lack of faith in God, but also undermining the ultimate humanity of the individual people who were being counted. Our wariness about counting people, understood this way, is not merely about something to do with the evil eye, but is about failing to value the humanity of others. We must thus ask if there is a way to count that does not objectify those being counted.

There are two census takings in Seder Bamidbar, (Book of Numbers). One from our Sedra today, and the one in Parashat Pinchas that takes places nearly 39 years later. Whereas ours is in the second year after l’tziyat mitzrayim, (the going out of Egypt) the census in Pinchas is of the next generation who have grown up in the desert and will, with the notable exception of Moshe, go into the Land. Significantly, this census is to be taken by Moshe and his nephew Elazar, the son of Aaron, who was present for that earlier census in our portion today.

It is noteworthy that the commands for the two censuses are slightly but significantly different. In Pinchas, the command is:

שאו את-רוש כל-עדת בני-ישראל מבין עשרים שנה ומעלה לבית אבתם כל יצא צבא בישראל.

(Num. 26:2) (take a census of the entire community of 20 years of age and over, those who are able to go to war in Israel, according to their father’s houses.) That is how you figure out the size of your army for crossing the Jordan and conquering the land.

In our sedra today, the command is:

שאו את-רוש כל-עדת בני-ישראל למשפחתם לבית אבתם במספר שמות כל-זכר לגלגלתם.

(Num 1:2) (take a census of the entire community, by their families, by their father’s, according to the number of names, by their polls). במספר שמות — the number of their names. Only our census today has such language. The Sforno focuses on this, and then brings a stunning proof text. He focuses on the fact that the generation that came out of Egypt were all known by name in a way that the generation that would enter the land were not. Accordingly to the Sforno, this is further proof of one of his major readings of the Chumash — that B’nai Yisrael were never intended to have been an army, but were intended to enter the land much earlier and without war; the nations would have forsaken the land as one of them, the Girgoshi, actually did. After the episode of the spies, of course, all that changed. They would not merely enter the land, they would wander for 40 years, they would die out in the wilderness, and their children would have to conquer the land as an army.

The proof text the Sforo brings as to the nature of that first generation which left Egypt is that במספר שמות, number their names, is similar to ואדעף בשם (“and I know you by name.” (Ex 33:17) ואדעף בשם was said by God to Moshe at arguably the most intimate moment in their relationship — seeking to do t’shuvah (repentance) on behalf of the Israelites after the sin of the golden calf, seeking the second set of tablets, seeking to see God’s presence. ואדעף בשם God says to Moshe — And I know you by name. That is how God knew each member of that generation that came out of Egypt and how He wanted them counted. Not just the number to fill out an army, and not just the number so that when multiplied by a half-shekel sufficient funds were raised to support the Mishkan, and certainly not just the number so that the king can brag to his fellow kings about how important he is. This is counting that does not objectify, but a counting that values and empowers.

What would that kind of counting look like? It is a counting that understands both the role of each element or member on its own, and of their role in the totality. It is the counting we have just completed for s’firat ha-omer. Counting each day is a part of the whole — there is a bridge between the leaving Egypt of Pesach and the receiving the Torah on Shavuot, and each day is subsumed under the essential rubric of this bridge. But within this totality, each day is individually crucial — if we miss one day in counting, we “lose our brachah (blessing) for the balance of that year’s counting, and continue without a blessing to complete the seven weeks of the Omer. That’s what this type of counting looks like for counting days. What does it look like for counting people?

The is a Midrash about what it means for each of us to have been creating in the Divine image. According to the Midrash, each of us is accompanied by angels throughout his or her life, who walk before us and announce “behold — here comes one created in the image of God.” It is very easy to hear own’s own angels. It is harder, and crucially important, to be able to hear the angels of others.

Significantly, this type of counting others that validates their individuality is something that we always have within our power. This is not about what the rest of the world does to us, about which tragically we often have little control, and there is little else to do sometimes other than that which is protective and defensive. This is precisely about what we do to each other, about which we always have complete control, and what we do here is self-defining and positive. Bamidbar, the parasha without mitzvot, perhaps paradoxically corresponds to all of those mitzvah-rich parashiyot that call upon us to treat each other with dignity, and decency, without hate in our hearts and indeed with love for one another. This is the kind of counting that B’nai Yisrael was asked to do as they left Sinai and that we might commit ourselves to right now, as we approach Sinai and Matan Torah (the giving of the Torah) tonight, as we enter into Shavuot.

I wrote back to Rivka Carmi, and asked whether I might share her words in this d’var Torah, and added that I hoped we would both live to see the day when consensus is in the streets and the public squares, and not just in the cemetery. Her reply: “For some reason I feel that this will coincide with the appearance of the Moshiach.” She may be right, and if so, then Bimheyrah v’yamanu, may it be speedily and in our days, and may we be among the agents of making it so.

*Frederick M. Lawrence is Senior Research Scholar at Yale Law School, and the former President of Brandeis University. He is the Secretary and CEO-Elect of the Phi Beta Kappa Society. This D’var Torah was delivered less than twenty-four hours before the tragedy at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida. It now represents an elegy for those murdered at the Pulse, as well as those murdered as the Sarona market referred to in the opening sentence.

About the Author
Frederick M. Lawrence is an American lawyer, civil rights scholar, Senior Research Scholar at Yale Law School and the former President of Brandeis University.