In this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Bamidbar, G-d commands a census of the Jewish people. A census seems like a most impersonal endeavor. As a person becomes a number, their unique characteristics disappear or become irrelevant. To the census, it doesn’t matter if they are an artist, an architect, a doctor, a dreamer. They are now number five-thousand-fifty-three – no more or less unique than five-thousand-fifty-two or four. It is for this reason that censuses, or even just counting individual Jews, are actually not permitted according to Jewish law (“It is forbidden to count Israel even for [the purposes of fulfilling] a commandment.” – Talmud Yoma 22b). As the prophet, Hosea says: “And the number of the children of Israel shall be as the sand of the sea, which shall neither be measured nor counted.” In fact, we’re not even supposed to count people directly to see whether there is a minyan, but instead use a verse of text that contains ten words, assigning each person a word. At this moment, though, at the beginnings of our people and our nation, G-d does ask for a census.
In Numbers 1:2, G-d commands Moses to count the Jewish people while “lift[ing] up the[ir] heads.” Rabbi Jonathan Sacks explains that the reason for this is to give them the confidence that each one can contribute to society through their uniqueness, but also while contributing to others at the same time. Moses does not just count heads, he must see each uplifted face as he does so as to see each person’s individuality.
The question of numbers is always a big one in conversations about synagogues – how many member families does the congregation have? The number does tell us a lot about who we are and what we can do, but not as much as you might think. A congregation with a thousand families, but only a small percentage of volunteers, feels impersonal, corporate, cold. A congregation with a few hundred families whose members take ownership of the synagogue feels warm, heimish, welcoming. And when people give of themselves, not just helping with random tasks but offering their talents and passions, that becomes even more apparent.
Last week, we celebrated Chai/Volunteer/Choir Shabbat. We recognized those who have been members of our legacy congregations for more than 18 years and those who give of their time to volunteer. When we called them to the bima, one would think it would have broken from the numbers who stood up to be counted among our dedicated members. There were many more who were not able to come who could have also stood among them.
In our synagogue, in our country, and in our world, we face the everyday choices about how we should be counted. In all cases, we benefit from the choice to be more than just a number. It is only by lifting up our heads that we can raise our voices and be heard. That is how we ensure that our synagogue, our country, and our world reflect the values that we hold most dear.
Cantor Sally Neff