This week’s Torah portion begins a new book of the Torah, Bamidbar. The Hebrew word Bamidbar literally means “in the wilderness,” the location of all of the action in this fourth book of the Torah. Yet we usually refer to Bamidbar by a different English name, “Numbers,” drawing the title from the main part of this week’s Torah portion:
Take a census of the whole Israelite community by the clans of its ancestral houses, listing the names, every male, head by head. You and Aaron shall record them by their groups, from the age of twenty years up, all those in Israel who are able to bear arms. (Numbers 1:2-3)
So then we get a list of all of those groups, from the tribe of Reuben and Simeon, from Judah and Issachar, from Benjamin and Dan. Large numbers — 46,000… 59,300… 45,650… — until we reach the total census, the figure of roughly 600,000 with which we’re most familiar, the number of Israelites tradition says wandered the wilderness for 40 years.
Of course, that 600,000 is not all-inclusive. It doesn’t include women. It doesn’t include children and teenagers under the age of twenty. It doesn’t include the elderly or physically disabled. The purpose of the census was to count the number of eligible individuals who could fight for the Israelites in battle. Among this wandering mass of probably over 1 million people, some 600,000 were capable of taking up arms.
The truth is Jewish tradition actually shuns the practice of counting people. It prefers instead to count things. When a previous census was conducted in the book of Exodus, the Israelites each brought a half-shekel to be counted in their place. When King Saul assesses the enrollment of his army, each soldier is instructed to bring one shard of pottery; another time, a baby goat.
And the practice continues in traditional circles to this day. Instead of counting people for a minyan (“Let’s see who do we have here… one, two, three, four…”), it is customary to use a particular verse from the Hebrew Bible, Psalms 28:10, instead: “Hoshia et amecha u-varech et nachaltecha u-r’eim v’nas’eim ad ha-olam.” You might recognize those words from the song we sometimes sing for our healing prayer, Cantor Leon Sher’s “Heal Us Now.” The words mean, “Save Your people and bless Your inheritance, and tend them, and raise them up forever.” But more important than their meaning is their number — the verse has ten words, so by reciting it carefully one can count a minyan by word rather than number.
If you are early enough to a service, in a place where a minyan is counted, you might also hear someone saying, “Not one, not two, not three…” — another acceptable way to count without officially counting.
Why is this important? Why do we avoid counting people one by one? When a practice sounds superstitious, odds are it is, and this is no exception. Some have suggested that singling out a person, one at a time, invites the evil eye. It might be construed as a sign of ego or inflated importance. It also isolates individuals from the community, and it is precisely the community that protects us when we are vulnerable, that gives us strength.
But I think there’s a deeper reason, too. Whenever we count people we risk reducing them to a number, a datapoint, a statistic. We have been counting people since January of this year, when the first cases of coronavirus were documented in the U.S. As of yesterday, there were 1.61 million confirmed cases of the virus in the United States. We have counted so high, that we are rounding to the nearest ten thousand; a margin of error of over 5,000 people. As of yesterday, there were 95,087 deaths from the novel coronavirus in our country; 95,087 souls who have been counted — but have they been mourned? By their families and loved ones, certainly. Though in ways and with practices far different than those that have traditionally comforted us in our moments of grief. But have we mourned them? There has been no collective memorial service, virtual or otherwise, of which I am aware. The Post and Courier doesn’t daily list the names of those who have died in our state — 9 deaths yesterday, 8 the day before, 8 more the day before that. We know every store that is opening, every beach with or without access — yet we fail to account for every life, every soul. Appeals to the economy urge the opening of more and more activity, yet remind us that those over 65, those with preexisting conditions, those with compromised immune systems should still isolate. So are we just leaving them aside in our calculus, a nod to the similarly exclusionary census that begins our biblical book?
Jewish tradition says it’s OK to speak of communal numbers — that’s why the census in this book of Numbers does record 46,500 in the tribe of Reuben; 59,300 in the tribe of Simeon; 45,650 in the tribe of Gad. But it’s because those totals don’t represent numbers; they represent people, people who are named in the text:
“Not one” — Elizur.
“Not two” — Shelumiel.
“Not three” — Nahshon.
“Not four” — Nethanel.
As difficult as it is, when we see the big numbers that define the severity of the circumstances of this moment, we too need to count in this way. Like Echad Mi Yodei in the Passover Seder, “Who knows one?” we ask, “Who knows 95,087?”
“Not one” — Wilson Roosevelt Jerman, former White House cleaner, butler, and elevator operator to 11 presidents.
“Not two” — Nita Pippins, a retired nurse who cared for her dying son during the AIDS epidemic, and then for countless others struck by the disease.
“Not three” — Marie Pino; “Not four” — her son, Marcus, who were teacher and basketball coach, respectively, at a rural school in hard-hit Navajo Nation.
“Not five” — Robert Sears, North Charleston resident and longtime volunteer at the South Carolina Aquarium.
“Not six” — Alfredo Pabatao; “Not seven” — Susan Pabatao, married 44 years, frontline health workers in New Jersey.
“Not eight” — Barry Webber, a general surgeon who volunteered to treat virus patients.
“Not nine” — JoAnn Stokes-Smith, one of the first nurse practitioners in the state of South Carolina.
“Not ten” — Timothy Neal Bell, organist and minister of music for Mount Moriah Baptist Church in Starr, SC.
One minyan of souls, and so, so many more. This is the Jewish way of counting, at least where people are concerned. And that is my most fervent hope and prayer: That people will always be our first, last, and most enduring concern.
“Hoshia et amecha u-varech et nachaltecha u-r’eim v’nas’eim ad ha-olam.” Save Your people, O God — all of your people. Bless us and tend us, and help us to lift one another’s spirits. May we count our days with purpose, our challenges with hope, and our blessings with joy, now and forever.