Bamidbar, Numbers 1:1-4:20, Parshat Hashavua for Shabbat, May 20, 2023

Wilderness) in Hebrew, or the Book of Numbers in English. It is called the Book of Numbers because it begins and ends with a census of the Israelites. “Take a census of the whole Israelite company by the clans of its ancestral houses, listing the names, every male, head by head.” (Numbers 1:2)

The Jewish religion has always had an ambivalent view of counting people. When King David takes a census, it brings down a plague that kills 70,000 (II Samuel 24:15). On the other hand, rabbinic sources state that a census is permitted if needed to fulfill a mitzvah (Bamidbar Rabbah 2:17), but it must be done indirectly. 

In traditional Jewish communities a minyan is counted using different verses from a psalm or by counting, “Not one, not two, not three..” This ambivalence reflects the Jewish view that each human being is unique, holy, and special, created by God in the Divine image. To count them is to diminish their holiness, reducing them from a holy being to a thing that can be counted. 

We should keep this in mind whenever we are tempted to lump people into groups, like liberals, or conservatives, or minorities, or gays. People may be part of an ethnic group, a political party, or a religious group, but they are also much more; they are human beings, created in God’s image. Any time we diminish a person in any way we are desecrating God’s name and we open the door to a host of behaviors that harm others and lead to the tragedies that are the scourge of human history.