This week we begin Sefer Bamidbar, the Book of Numbers. The book is known in English as The Book of Numbers because it begins and ends with a census count. The census makes for some pretty tedious reading, but the classic Jewish commentaries draw an inspiring lesson from the way the book opens.
שְׂאוּ אֶת־רֹאשׁ כָּל־עֲדַת בְּנֵי־יִשׂרָאֵל
Se’u et rosh kol adat B’nei Yisrael… (Numbers 1:2)
The conventional translation of this phrase is “Take a census of the entire Israelite community…” As he examines this verse, the medieval commentator Rashi asks the question that might also occur to us: Why does God insist on counting the Children of Israel over and over again throughout the Torah?
Rashi’s answer: “Because God loved them so much, God counted them often.” God is here a teacher with her class on a school trip, constantly counting to make sure no one gets left behind. God is a loving parent, gazing repeatedly at each of his children until they complain, “Why do you keep looking at me?”
This lovely reading is strengthened by the literal meaning of the Hebrew. Se’u et rosh kol adat B’nei Yisrael means “lift up the head of every person in the community of the Children of Israel.” I picture a loving adult gently placing their hand under the chin of a child, and lifting their face up, saying, “Let me have a look at you!”
We are being counted because each of us counts, each of us matters. Unlike Pharaoh, who referred to the Hebrew slaves as a nameless swarm, unlike the Nazis who literally reduced people to mere numbers, branded on their forearms, we are meant to recognize and count each individual, each a unique reflection of the Divine image.
The end of our Torah verse amplifies this understanding: בְּמִסְפַּר שֵׁמוֹת…לְגֻלְגְּלֹתָם
B’mispar shemot…l’gulgelotam – “list each one by name, head by head.” In the process of counting, each individual is to be recognized by name.
In this moment of mass infection and death, as we pore over graphs and statistics, death rates and casualties, let us take this teaching to heart and remember that every single person deserves to be recognized and loved. Everyone counts.