Torah Talk on Bamidbar 5779
This week we read the portion of Bamidbar, first in the book of Numbers, which is given its name by the census that occupies a good part of the beginning of the Torah portion. Superficially it’s just a listing of names and numbers, and not a very interesting text for study or inspiration. But it also teaches us a primary lesson: that every human being counts in God’s eyes—and should similarly count in our eyes, as well.
There is an unusual phrase in the beginning of the portion. The survey is to be taken of the entire nation b’mispar sheimot, “by the numbering of names.” In other words, even though by definition a census is an accounting, a totaling of sums, each individual is to be accounted for not by number but by name. Each person has a unique identity, a human face. Each is an image of God.
The notion that every human being counts is part of our tradition in many ways, from the requirement that we have 10 Jewish adults for a minyan to the requirement that we must view every other person as a tzelem Elohim, an image of God no different from ourselves in holiness. The Talmud tells us that one who saves a single life is accorded the merit of having saved the entire world. Each of us is counted, because we all count.
Paradoxically, even counting itself can be transformed into an affirmation of sanctity. In this period between Pesach and Shavu’ot we count each day of the Omer as a kind of special preparation, remembering the connection between freedom and covenant; we count each day so that we can make each day count, until this Saturday night, when we reach the 50th day which is Shavu’ot. And when we do the tabulation of the ten people required for a minyan, traditionally we don’t count by numbers, since that would devalue each human being into a mere digit. Instead we find a verse from the Bible that has 10 words and work our way through it until we have completed the passage, thus making every member of that accounting part of a holy sentence.
In a world of numbers, in an era of ever-increasing use of analytics, it is comforting to realize that we are each much more than the sum of our parts. No matter how we seek to quantify and digitize our world each one of us—especially you—matters to God.
And that is worth recounting, again and again.