Parshat Bamidbar: Numbers 1:1-4:20; Hosea 2:1-22.
Rabbi Jeremy Yoskowitz
A national census, at any level, is no small undertaking. For those who are counted, it might be considered a nuisance at best. For those who must do the counting, it seems like an exceedingly long and difficult task.
Considering the logistical hurdles in accounting for large numbers of people, particularly in a world where all must be tallied by hand, there needs to be a compelling reason to take a census, something that actively and immediately serves the national interest. In the census that we learn of in Bamidbar, counting all of the males over the age of 20 not only makes clear at which point we view males as men who are responsible for caring for the nation, but also that this census serves as verifying Israel’s military readiness.
Yet for all of that, the census of Israel that is taken is overwhelmingly anti-climactic. The number of Israelite men over the age of 20 is reported as being 603,550 (Bamidbar 1:46), an identical amount to a census that was earlier recorded in Exodus 38:26. The Bekhor Shor, a medieval commentator, suggest that this is understood to be a miracle: God kept alive all of those men who were previously counted. God commanded this census so that each person would have his name acknowledged as a person of intrinsic worth, something the later Italian commentator Sforno suggests relates to the unique character of each and every individual.
This would provide us with enough intrinsic value to demonstrate the importance and necessity of this census. For each and every person to be recognized, acknowledged and valued as the unique soul that he is would be enough to uplift the entire nation, uniting us again in a common purpose just as when we stood at Sinai and declared Na’aseh v’nishmah! “We will do and understand!” This census is about creating a sacred community and emphasizing the critical role of the individual in maintaining that community, not enumerating people as numbers with neither faces nor voices.
As the command given to Moshe to begin the census is literally s’ooh et rosh, “uplift the head,” of all the community, we can understand this to refer to lift up our heads as members of the community with pride in our common purpose, fully united as a people who stand together. We are literally standing up and being counted.
In our modern understanding of standing up and being counted, we emphasize how this is about making our voices heard. We state our opinions for the record and ensure that our views are expressed. As Americans, our nation is preparing for a national census in 2020.
While certain aspects of that census remain to be decided by the courts, in the tradition of our faith, let us regard this census as an opportunity to engage in heshbon hanefesh, personal accounting of our own souls, to consider what each and every one of us can and do to contribute to our communities.
How will you stand and be counted in the coming year? Let us look at the chance to take part in the U.S. census not as a necessary burden of citizenship, but as an opportunity to ensure that we make our voices heard. Let us ensure that we take an active part in civic and communal leadership so that all our communal organizations endure and thrive. Let us wholeheartedly voice our opinions with civility, kindness, courtesy and strength as leaders in our communities and our nation.
Rabbi Jeremy Yoskowitz is a Jewish Studies instructor at Frankel Jewish Academy as well as a chaplain and ethics consultant for Beaumont Health.