The fourth book in the Torah, Bamidbar, chronicles Israel’s odyssey from the Sinai desert to the banks of the Jordan River, just steps away from its destination, Eretz Yisrael. But before we get to the events of that 40-year hike, God tells Moses to take a census, to count the people. This counting is the source of the book’s title in English, Numbers.
It makes sense to begin the trek by counting the people, but didn’t we just conduct a census? God commanded a census prior to the building of the Mishkan in Shemot 30, and we read that it was completed eight chapters later (Shemot 38:26). And this census was completed just a month before the one commanded at the beginning of Bamidbar. Why so much counting?
I remember my son’s annoyance when, in New York with eighth-graders, I insisted upon counting the students before they entered the crowded subway and once we reached our destination. He thought I was being too parental. I thought I was taking my responsibility as a chaperone seriously — each “number” equaled the precious child of parents who had entrusted me to return their child to them.
Rashi tells us that God ordered this census as a gesture of love:
Because they (the children of Israel) are dear to Him, God counts them often. He counted them when they were about to leave Egypt. He counted them after the Golden Calf to establish how many were left. And now that He was about to cause His presence to rest on them (with the inauguration of the sanctuary), He counted them again (Rashi to Bamidbar 1:1).
Another hint at the rationale of the counting can be found in the instructions God gives for the counting. Moses is told “S’u et rosh (lift up the head) of every (male) member of the community … listing their names … ” Bamidbar 1:2.
The instruction to “lift up the head” of every member of the group is a call to learn what makes each individual unique, to learn their names, the members of their family. The instruction to “lift up the head” of every individual Israelite is to come to understand to whom this person matters, and what their needs are.
It is a holy task to count in this way.
I could end here; it is a holy task to count in this way, with the message that people are not statistics, and that every person counts.
But I can’t end here; I have an itch that needs to be scratched. It is holy work to count each individual — to lift up their heads — which is why it is hard not to fret about the fact that women and children were not counted.
Of course, the Torah tells us that the census was (at least in part) to establish the size and strength of an army for future disputes and conquests. Yet even this very practical and reasonable explanation leaves out the important benefits of being counted. Not counting women and children means not knowing their names and faces and circumstances; not counting women and children means that they themselves were not known.
Our nation’s 2020 census is a way for our government to know us — each one of us. The U.S. census provides essential information our leaders need in order to know how we should be represented and where to put resources like roads and schools and hospitals. Any hope we had for a fair and complete census has been threatened by COVID-19, but, ironically and fortunately, it is so easy to participate. You don’t need to leave your home — every person living in the U.S. can respond to the census online at My2020Census.gov; by phone, toll-free, at 844-330-2020; or by mail.
I imagine it’s a bit of a stretch to understand how completing a census can be holy work, but the results of the census — the opportunity to be seen and recognized, to have our needs met — are in fact holy.
Have you completed your census form? Do you have five minutes to spare? Go get yourself counted! PJC
Rabbi Sharyn Henry is rabbi of Rodef Shalom Congregation. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.