To count or not to count?
Maybe the question should be: How do we count?
In Judaism, we are prohibited from counting people. An odd statement for the rabbi to make during the week when our Torah portion includes a second census in the wilderness. So, although we are prohibited from counting people, we were asked by God to count ourselves twice in the wilderness, once in the beginning of our journey and a second time almost 40 years later.
How can this be? Rabbinic commentators give many interpretations on this contradiction between text and law or custom. My comments focus on one aspect of the Biblical census that makes it so relevant to us today and explains how we should count.
When Moses conducts the census, he counts people by the names of tribal heads and their sons; and the second census tells us of their descendants. The total number in each clan is listed only after names are recalled. We don’t count people by using numbers; we recall people by name.
To me, the text is teaching that a census isn’t about a final number; we are more complicated than that. A census, which evaluates our current status, is about checking in with who we are, as individuals and as a community. A census doesn’t just ask about how many people, but also asks who are these people? And after 40 years in the wilderness, the people have changed. There are literally different people standing at the heads of their tribes after much loss, and each person, each survivor has been changed by their journey.
If we were to take a census of ourselves, our families, our communities, our congregation – with names, not just numbers; with values, not just statistics – we would find that we are very different than we were a year ago, or two years ago. Different people are standing at the heads of our organizations and as leaders of our country; we have all changed from loss and growth.
Like our biblical ancestors, it is time to move forward with this new arrangement of people and responsibilities and newly discovered life meaning. Just as they were journeying toward their promised land, we are journeying toward ours: Tikkun Olam, a world whole and complete, made that way because we will repair the brokenness.