People count, so don’t count people


By Rabbi Jennifer Weiner

This week’s Torah portion is Bamidbar, Numbers 1:1 – 4:20.

Without telling me, my 9-year-old son put a new screen saver on my computer. I discovered it this morning when I turned on the machine and the USS Enterprise of Star Trek appeared.

My first thought was, “How did he gain access to my work computer?”  Then I found a connection between the starship and the desert voyages of the Israelites.

Our Torah portion begins with God telling Moses: “Take a census of the whole Israelite community by the clans of its ancestral houses, listing the names, every male, head by head.  You and Aaron shall record them by their groups, from the age of 20 years up, all those in Israel able to bear arms” (Numbers 1:2-3).
From these two verses, I have these questions:

•    Why only count and record the males?
•    Why from age 20 and up?
•    Why by their clans?
•    Why should it be Moses and Aaron recording the names?
•    What is the meaning of counting the individuals?
•    Why are Moses and Aaron counting the individuals when we have a tradition of not counting Jews?
•    Is this portion in keeping with the promise that Abraham’s descendants would be as numerous as the sands of the sea and the stars of the sky?

The community of Israel is still quite young at this point in the story. It was not too long before that they left Egypt and slavery behind them. Perhaps God wants the individuals counted to demonstrate that each one counts. Since each person is considered b’tzelem Elohim, created in the image of God, each individual should count.

According to Rambam, each person was counted by name and not by assigning a number. Each person in the census donated a half-shekel and the shekels were then donated.  Today, Jewish law forbids the counting of people for a minyan. It is this law that teaches the importance of each person being an individual and being a precious soul in our world. For this reason, we are taught that no one may be reduced to just a number.

Each member of the Israelite nation was important and needed in order to create a warm and inviting community.  Today, our community should likewise be warm and welcoming and inviting to each individual wishing to join in embracing Judaism. The community should make individuals feel they are valued. We should find out what a person is interested in or skilled at and use those talents to better our community.

For the community of Israel, continuing on their journey in the desert will mean discovering the talents of each person. The members will wander in the wilderness not always with a clear path to follow. Like the starship Enterprise, they will go where no one has gone before. n

Rabbi Jennifer Weiner is rabbi-educator at Congregation Adat Reyim in Springfield.

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