Diana Lipton
A Bible scholar on the streets of Jerusalem

Who’s Counting? In the Parasha and at the Protests (19)

The Standard of Ur, ancient Mesopotamia. Photo: Wikipedia.

This is my nineteenth consecutive post connecting the weekly parasha to Israel’s pro-democracy protests. 

Numbers are not, and never have been, my friends. They don’t speak to me. So it seemed like a cruel twist of fate that the parasha for my Bat Mitzvah, which I celebrated when I was 24-years old and working in New York City on an investment bank trading floor (yes, a strange choice for a number-phobe, but ‘buy low, sell high’ was simple enough, and the numbers were mostly in manageable blocks of 5 million) was Be’Midbar, this week’s parasha.

The small section of Be’Midbar I chanted – I shared my Bat Mitzvah with several other women, mostly older than me, who for various reasons had not celebrated it at the usual age for girls (12 or 13) – was part of a census. By then, I had a degree in English literature, and usually found a way to connect to texts, but that the descendants of Issachar aged 20 and over and able to bear arms numbered 54,400, while Ephraim’s totaled 40,500 and Manasseh’s came in at a mere 32,200… Well, it was like a wall.

Later on, I discovered that I wasn’t alone in having mixed feelings about censuses. The idea for the census in Be’Midbar came from God.

Numbers 1:1 The Lord spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the tent of meeting, on the first day of the second month, in the second year after they had come out of the land of Egypt, saying, “Take a census of the whole congregation of Israelites, in their clans, by ancestral houses, according to the number of names, every male individually, from twenty years old and up, everyone in Israel able to go to war.

But in one of the Tanakh’s more unsettling episodes, God is extremely angry with King David for ordering Yoav, a commander in David’s army, to count his soldiers. Yoav was reluctant, but returned with the report that there were 1,100,000 in Israel and 470,000 men in Judah (1 Chronicles 21:1-6). I forgot to mention that David had been incited to count Israel by the Adversary – similar to the figure who convinces God to allow him to test Job (Job 1:6-12). But that factor didn’t prevent God from striking Israel (1 Chronicles 21:7).

David acknowledged his sin and asked God remove his guilt. In response, God offered him a choice between three things: a three-year famine; to be swept away for three months by sword-bearing enemies; or ‘three days of the sword of the LORD, pestilence in the land, and the angel of the LORD wreaking destruction throughout the territory of Israel’ (1 Chronicles 21:12). More numbers, all threes.

David chose to be in the hands of God, not men, and 70,000 men died in Israel from  divine-inflicted pestilence. God did, however, ‘stay the hand’ of the angel he’d sent to destroy Jerusalem. Meanwhile, David was looking up, and saw the angel standing between heaven and earth with a drawn sword in his hand, directed against Jerusalem. ‘I alone am guilty’, he pleaded. ‘Was it not I alone who ordered the numbering of the people?’ (1 Chronicles 21:17). God relented.

What distinguished Moses’ census from David’s? Maybe it was that God commanded the first but not the second. Or maybe there’s a difference between gathering troops to secure a land for a homeless people and assembling an army to expand an empire. Or maybe it was a warning against hubris. You can count numbers, but you can’t count on numbers.

At the end of last week, organizers of some of the pro-democracy protests announced that there would be no post-Shabbat demonstration this week. A ceasefire with Gaza had not yet been announced, and security concerns were coupled with a desire to show solidarity with Israelis barraged by rockets in southern Israel and the war’s innocent victims. In Jerusalem, where sirens did not sound in this round of fighting, people gathered in silence outside the President’s House. But we are not slowing down, the protest organizers emphasized. This is not an interruption in the sequence of pro-democracy demonstrations.

As many observers have noted, numbers have played a major role in this protest movement. Almost from the start, we counted the number of weeks that Israel has been demonstrating. I link my weekly blog posts to this number. For many, counting the weeks of pro-democracy protest became especially significant once we started counting the Omer, the 50-days between Pesach and Shavuot announced each night with a blessing: Blessed are you O Lord our God who sanctified us with his commandments and commanded us to count the Omer. Today is the [??] day, which is [??] week(s) and [??] day(s) of the Omer. For those counting the weeks of protest and the Omer, two systems of quantifying the passage of time are currently in play, until Shavuot comes next week.

A lot more contentiously, we’ve been counting the number of people at each demonstration. Not surprisingly, demonstration organizers are accused of exaggerating attendance, and their opponents are accused of minimizing it.

After the first pro-democracy demonstration in Tel Aviv back in January, a researcher at Ben Gurion University posted a fascinating piece on the science of crowd counting. But it didn’t settle the matter. Estimates vary somewhat for every protest. For one of the very few pro-judicial reform demonstrations that’s taken place so far, there were wildly different claims, from 200,000 to 600,000.

At the demonstrations themselves, demonstrators look around, trying to guess how many people are in attendance. More than last week? Not as many? People standing outside the President’s House in Jerusalem check the headlines on their phones to see live reports of the numbers in Tel Aviv.

Afterwards, WhatsApp groups buzz with numbers large and small. Motzei Shabbat 23 April: 380,000 demonstrators around the country; 215,000 at Kaplan in Tel Aviv; 35,000 in Haifa; 15,000 in K’far Saba; 15,000 in Jerusalem, 70 in Yad Mordecai; 8 at the Golan intersection… Especially large numbers this week? We feel exhilarated. Lower numbers? We look for explanations – a terrorist attack, bad weather, Shabbat ended later.

But what do the numbers really mean? Why do we care about them so much? The answer is partly emotional, especially for people on the streets. The weekly Jerusalem demonstrations are not so big, but being one of hundreds of thousands of peaceful, committed protestors at Kaplan or outside the Knesset is a very powerful feeling indeed, as is knowing that you are part of something even bigger around the country.

More to the point, according to commentators, is the well-known phenomenon of strength in numbers. Surely the Government won’t destroy Israel’s democracy if this many Israelis object? Unfortunately, we can’t count on that.

In the end, the crucial number is 64. Not the 64,000 Dollar question (though the economy is part of this picture). Or the age at which you wonder if your beloved will still love you no matter what (though many people are asking themselves how they can still love Israel if it becomes a dictatorship). It’s the number of seats held by the coalition government, versus 61 members of the opposition. If just three — that number again — members of the coalition vote against the Government, the reforms will not pass. If they don’t approve the upcoming budget, the Government could collapse.

Coalition members are constantly threatening not to vote with the Government. Promises they were made are not being kept. Their needs (lowered age for army exemption, more funding for settlements) are not being met. But, with all the uncertainty it would bring for them, will any of the coalition’s quarreling factions go as far as to bring down the Government?

A preferable outcome would be for three of the ‘moderate’ members of the Likud party to acknowledge the entirely justified primal fear that the judicial reforms have instilled in an estimated two-thirds of the population, and vote against them. It’s a battle of numbers, and right now, we don’t have the luxury to stop fighting.

About the Author
Before I moved to Israel in 2011, I was a Fellow of Newnham College, Cambridge (1997-2006), and a Reader in Hebrew Bible and Jewish Studies at King's College London (2007-2011). In Israel, I've taught Bible at Hebrew University's International School and, currently, in the Department of Biblical Studies at Tel Aviv University, where I am a Teaching Fellow and chair the Academic Steering Committee of the Orit Guardians MA program for Ethiopian Jews. I give a weekly parsha shiur at Beit Moses home for the elderly in Jerusalem. I serve on the Boards of Jerusalem Culture Unlimited (JCU) and Hassadna Jerusalem Music Conservatory, and I'm a judge for the Sami Rohr Prize. I'm the very proud mother of Jacob and Jonah, and I live in Jerusalem with my husband Chaim Milikowsky. My last book was 'From Forbidden Fruit to Milk and Honey: A Commentary on Food in the Torah'; proceeds go to Leket, Israel's national food bank. The working title of my next book, co-authored with Micha Price, is 'A Biblical Guide to the Climate Crisis'.
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