The sidra Bemidbar begins the Book of Numbers and opens shortly after the inauguration of the Tabernacle. It begins with a set of censuses (hence the name “Numbers”). God commands Moses to count all Jewish men of military age. One member of each tribe is named as leader (nasi). Each nasi will assist Moses and Aaron in taking a census of his tribe. This census established the tribal lineage of every Jew. After giving us the numbers for each tribe, the Torah gives us the grand total of male Jews of military age: 603,550 – excluding the Levites who are assigned the tasks of dismantling, carrying, and re-erecting the Tabernacle whenever the Jews travelled, and keeping guard over it and its vessels.
The Tabernacle was always to be placed at the centre of the encampment, surrounded by the "Flag of Judah" -- which included the Tribes of Judah, Issachar and Zebulun -- to the east; the "Flag of Reuben" -- Reuben, Shimon, Gad -- to the south; the "Flag of Ephraim" -- Ephraim, Manasseh, Benjamin -- to the west; and the "Flag of Dan" -- Dan, Asher, Naphtali -- to the north. The Levites are appointed to serve in the Tabernacle, guard its vessels and assist the priests with their Tabernacle duties.
Moses is now commanded to count all Levite males from the age of one month and older. The three Levite families are counted, and a leader is appointed for each of the families. The total of all (non-firstborn) Levites eligible for this census: 22,000.
God then tells Moses to count all the firstborn Israelites -- because the holiness of each Israelite firstborn was now to be "transferred" to a Levite. The census revealed that there were 273 more firstborn than Levites. Each of these "extra" firstborns (as determined by a lottery) gave five shekels to the priests, and was thereby "redeemed" – a ceremony we now call ‘pidyon ha’ben’.
Moses is commanded to take a census of the Levites of the family of Kehat who are the ones who will be eligible to transport the Tabernacle and its vessels -- those between the ages of thirty and fifty. The results of this census are given in next week's reading. This section then describes the duties of the Kehat family. When the Tabernacle was to be dismantled, the priests would cover all the holy vessels with special covers. The Kehat family would then take the covered vessels and carry them to their destination – because these are the most holy parts of the Tabernacle, they are also the most dangerous to be handled.
We are in the middle of the time of counting the omer – the days between Pesach and Shavuot – which give a prominence to the link between Freedom (Pesach) and Responsibility (Shavuot).
Counting is something that has long roots in Jewish tradition- we count days and weeks of the omer, we count the days of penitence between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we count the years for the shemittah year and we count the multiples of shemittah years for the Jubilee year. The scribe will count the letters written in a torah scroll in order to check that there are none added and non removed accidentally. We even count the days till brit and the “white days” in the menstrual cycle. But counting people has always been a problem in Jewish tradition – it is forbidden to take a direct numbering of the people of Israel and plague was often the result for those who tried. The Talmud tells us “Rabbi Eleazar said: Whosoever counts Israel, transgresses a [biblical] prohibition, as it is said: "Yet the number of the children of Israel shall be as the sand of the sea, which cannot be measured" [Hosea]. R. Nachman b. Isaac said: He would transgress two prohibitions, for it is written: 'Which cannot be measured or numbered'.
Counting people can be said to take away the uniqueness of the individual, turning them simply into a number, dehumanizing the person. At the same time one could argue that as every number is different, the person is stripped not so much of individuality as of community. Yet community power resides within numbers. The development of the three patriarchs to the seventy souls who went down with Jacob to Egypt, to the over six hundred thousand at Sinai show how the community, the peoplehood, grew. We still understand a community to be the number we can count on the fingers of two hands – a minyan is ten people. Numbers bind us into community and they bind us to our roots. The traditional way of counting a minyan is to recite verse 9 of psalm 28 – the ten words of which being “hoshia et amecha uvarech et nachalatecha ur’eim venasseim ad ha’olam - Save Your people, and bless Your inheritance and tend them, and carry them for ever. Another traditional way is to say “not one, not two, not three etc”
The fear of counting people and thus separating them from the community and possibly from their own humanity has long roots in Judaism – only God is really allowed to count us, only God is seen as having the ability to count without discounting so to speak. Yet the need to understand the community and to be able to count people into the community continues. And the way that bible recommends is that we ask for a contribution from people and each contribution is counted.
It isn’t so odd as it sounds. Effectively the half shekel poll tax in order to support the Temple was both a fundraising activity and a way of measuring the numerical strength of the community. But I particularly resonate to the requirement that asks of people that in order for their presence to be recognised, they should offer some basic support to the community, and with this support they will be counted in. Tragically the Jewish world spends too long finding ways to count people out of the community rather than finding ways to include them. And it also has lessened its hold on the idea of being in a community by virtue of what you are offering to that community – not money per se as the half shekel was a deliberately small amount designed to be possible for everyone to give, but a contribution nevertheless – of time, of caring, of thought, of presence. It is an ancient idea that you are part of the community if you choose to offer something of yourself to it, if you partake of it, if you participate within it. You are part of the community if the community can count on you. It is a calculation we could all spend some time considering.
Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild