This Shabbat we begin reading Sefer Bamidbar (In the Wilderness in Hebrew). It is called Numbers in English and Sefer Ha Pikudim (The counting in Hebrew) by our sages because it begins and ends with a census of the Israelites. It is the fourth book of our Torah and marks a transition from the life of the Israelites in the desert where all their needs for food, shelter, clothing, and guidance are met through direct Divine care and their preparations to enter the Land of Israel, where the Israelites will become responsible for themselves.
As the chronicle of their life in the desert, it can be seen as the pivotal book in the Israelites’ transition from a band of slaves to a free people. As Sefer Ha Pikudim or the Book of Numbers, it raises the issue of counting human beings, which has always been problematic in Judaism.
Societies count their members for all sorts of reasons, from the distribution of social services to the drafting of young people for the armed forces. So it was in ancient Israel, which needed to raise armies and distribute land. But there is a danger in counting people: that the individual will become an anonymous member of a mass and lose their individuality.
Judaism champions the radical notion that each individual, because they are created in the Divine image, is unique and of infinite value. Thus, to somehow make them part of a group, is to diminish their humanity and their divinity. On the other hand, our Torah is also deeply concerned with creating a functioning and moral society.
Navigating this tension, between the competing needs of the individual and society lies at the heart of Torah’s wisdom: how do we create a cooperative society that meets the needs of its members while protecting the uniqueness of every single person. It is a tension we struggle with to this day.