Commentary on Parshat Bamidbar (Numbers 1:1 – 4:20)
We are reeling from a steady chain of violent attacks on campuses and houses of worship, including Chabad of Poway, each leaving pain and fear in its wake. Every attack sends a message that our lives don’t count and that the lives of future generations, now cut short, don’t count either. In the face of such shattering realities, our tradition can help set a moral and spiritual compass. We are called to fight for a world where each person’s life counts, and the preservation of that life remains primary.
Parshat Bamidbar begins with a census. In ancient times this was essential for military conscription and for taxes on people or property. Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev noted that the “final count of Israelites in the census — 603,550 — totals the number of letters in the Torah. Just as the absence of one letter renders a Torah scroll unfit for use, the loss of even one person prevents us from fulfilling our divine mission” (Megaleh Amukot (186); Etz Hayim, note on p.770). And so too, the absence of one child dancing to music, the absence of one aunt picking up her niece from school, the absence of one off-duty police officer, the absence of one wife or one husband, the loss of all these souls prevents us from being the society our Jewish faith, and all faiths, helps us envision and create.
Now, certainly there are painful associations with the act of counting people.
As Jews, we know too well where that can lead, as the Nazis tattooed numbers on the forearms of family members. As human beings, we can point to endless examples in our history and in our present, where people are treated as commodities. In the Bible, we have examples of unjust censuses, warning us that counting people can lead to destruction. For instance, our celebrated King David, “counted the nation, and David said to God, ‘I have sinned greatly’” (2 Samuel 24:10). King David only counted sword-wielding men so that he could grasp the number of people who could serve him, David, instead of God. King David’s count is anonymous and cold.
But the count we read about in Parshat Bamidbar, which Moses conducts on behalf of God, is different. According to Rashi, “because of their preciousness [God] counts them constantly” (Rashi on Bamidbar 1:1). In other words, God’s census is one way that God expresses love for Israel, and the process of counting is adapted accordingly. Instead of counting men and their swords, Moses “takes a census of the entire congregation of Israel by their families, by the house of their fathers, according to their names” (Numbers 1:2).
According to their names. The Psalmist proclaims that “God counts the number of the stars and calls each one by name” (Psalms 147:4). So too, Moses, through God’s instruction, counts people according to their names.
Within my name I find my purpose and potential, the realities I fear, the people I love. One of the key ways we “call each one by name” in our congregation is through the elements of faith-based community organizing. Together, we identify common goals, we investigate, we act, we reflect and learn. And through it all, the life force of this work remains essential — building relationships across lines of race, class and faith where we become more than bodies filling a seat. We become a powerful force for healing and hope.
Some weeks can be more depleting, or troubling, requiring us to breathe deeply, and work a little harder as we pursue our very precious and sacred mission — to make each person count. May we always discover new ways to see each person for their name, rather than as a commodity that can help move our agenda forward. May we feel, as our ancient ancestors did, that counting each person and seeing them as God does, as a precious being, we can stand as powerful agents in our own destiny, not as slaves to violence and exploitation, but as people who are ever striving for the freedom and well-being of all.
Rabbi Kimberly Herzog Cohen is committed to the sacred work of building relational communities, where Jewish meaning, spiritual vibrancy, and tikkun olam are core values. She brings this commitment into her responsibilities at Temple Emanu-El of Dallas where she has served since 2011. Rabbi Herzog Cohen is married to Rabbi Michael Cohen. They are parents of 5-year-old twins and of a furry child, a Siberian husky named Cash.