COUNTING IN THE DESERT – Bamidbor – Numbers 1-4:20, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon
This week’s reading gives its name to the entire book which it opens. But the English name seems to bear no relationship to the Hebrew name of the same book. “Numbers” is not a translation of “Bamidbor,” which means “In the desert.” Actually, the Hebrew name sets the scene for the whole history described in this book, which follows the ancient Hebrew tribes through the desert, in their slow and perilous progress toward the Promised Land. The English name is appropriate to this week’s reading, however, since here we see the completion of the census Moses conducted just a couple of months earlier when the Tabernacle – the mishkan – was built. Then, every male Israelite of military age had to bring a contribution of half a shekel toward the construction of the first Jewish house of worship. By counting the coins, the people’s leaders knew the total number of potential fighters: 603,550.
Doubtful that Moses ever said that, but he might have. That’s what opens this book of the Torah – a census. Counting is a serious process, and nowhere more serious than among Jews. We treat it with great respect. Reluctance, in fact. Traditionally we avoid counting people. The good Yiddishe Mama would tick off her children saying “not one, not two, not three…” because only G-d should count us, and the Malakhamoves (angel of death) just waits for some careless human to usurp that prerogative.
In the super-observant section of Jerusalem called Meyah Sh’arim (100 Gates) we are told that it is considered a sacred duty to oppose and thwart the Israeli Government Census. Census takers are seen as violating Divine law.
And yet, as countless Jewish accountants can testify, we are heavily into counting other things – assets, liabilities, even time. In fact, when we count time we do it as a religious rite. The seven weeks between Passover and Shavuos are counted ceremonially, day by day.
Why? Why, now when we are deluged with printed calendars, should we still consider it a Mitzvah to count time? And why is it a Mitzvah not to count people?
“Teach us to number our days,” says a Psalm of David, “so we will acquire a heart of wisdom.” Nowhere does he say “teach us to count each other.” This despite the fact that King David himself conducted an unauthorized census that cost him dearly.
Are the numbers themselves important? How many Jews left Egypt? Various schools of interpretation come up with different versions of the Biblical figures. The accepted total of fighting men ranges from 5,500 to over 600,000 depending on whose analysis you follow. And the total Hebrew population in the desert? Anywhere from 20,000 to 2 million. If in fact 2 million Jews left Egypt plus the “mixed multitude” that followed them, there is a plausible theory that the wanderings of such a huge population spread beyond the Sinai peninsula into the whole Arabian subcontinent. Intriguing idea, isn’t it? Maybe that’s why so many Arabs look like Jews? In Spain maybe they didn’t expel the Hebrews quite soon enough…the Semitic features survive on some Spanish faces too.
Those are the uncounted. What about the ones who are counted? And what about the counting we still do, despite the taboos? This section reminds us that Moses took his census in the desert. G-d spoke to him, and through him to the entire Israelite people in the desert. Facing danger on every side, our ancestors received the Torah, and built the Mishkan — the portable sanctuary that would serve as their spiritual center for 40 grim years – in the desert. There Moses counted them. There they made their lives count. There they became a nation.
Some deserts bloom today because the descendants of that nation make them blossom. And some of those descendants face challenges today that equal those of Moses’ time. In a way we’re all in the desert. Like the nation that marched into Sinai, we need to learn the Torah’s message – and earn that message – to implement it in our lives. It can strengthen us to achieve victory over enemy violence and self-defeating doubt. We can do it. And in that action we can make our lives count. So, counting people is important, after all.
Equally important, if not more so, is counting time. When you count time, though, aren’t you in fact measuring your own life? “Today is the umpteenth day of the Omer.” That’s not all. “Today is the first day of the rest of your life.” The truth is, no one else can count that day for you.
In a very real sense, no one else can count you either. Not even Moses. There he was, numbering the Israelites in the desert. Could it be that Moses, to whom the whole past and future Torah was revealed, didn’t know the profound teaching yet to become a cliché: “One who saves a single life of these is considered as saving a whole world, and one who destroys a single life of these is considered as destroying a whole world”? Each life has infinite value. Once you have counted infinity, how can you add to it?
Perhaps that’s the answer to the riddle of Jewish counting. Numbering our days is positive because it reminds us that life is limited. Count your days, to make your days count. And counting people is negative because it’s like a vaudeville performer counting the house. The quality of his act will be in direct ratio to the size of his audience. Real quality performers don’t work that way. As people who sang in my choirs can testify, I always told them: “Never mind the empty seats. Sing for the people who are here.”
The individual facing you – friend, stranger, relative or adversary – is at this moment the infinity matching your infinity. That individual counts. You count. And this day counts because it, like you, is irreplaceable.
In the desert or the suburbs, at sea or on land, today or tomorrow, to build a better future, count me in.