The Book of Numbers
As we come close to concluding the 49 days of counting the Omer, we begin the fourth book of the Torah, the Book of Numbers, or the Book of Counting (Talmud Sotah 36b).
Why is an entire book titled “Numbers?” Technically, because this book begins with the census of the Jewish people, and the later in the same book another census is taken (Numbers 26). But this only carries over the question to the actual census: Why in the first place is it so important to count the people, especially considering that G-d in His all encompassing knowledge knows their precise number?!
Indeed, the Midrash tells us that there are a total of ten censuses. Once when they went down to Egypt (Genesis 46). A second time when they came out (Exodus 12:37). A third time after the incident of the Golden Calf (30:12). Twice in the Book of Numbers: once in formation of the camps, and once in connection with the division of the land. Twice in the days of Saul (Samuel I 11:8; 15:4). The eighth time in the days of David (Samuel II 24:9). The ninth time in the days of Ezra (Ezra 2:64; Nehemiah 7:66). The tenth time will be in the future era of Moshiach, when “The flocks shall again pass under the hands of Him that counts them” (Jeremiah 33:13).
What is the great significance of counting the people? So important that a census was taken nine times in history – and one more will be taken in Messianic times; so important that an entire book of Torah is named “Numbers?”
Rashi, the classic Biblical commentator, says:
“Because the people were dear to G-d, He counts them all the time. He counted them when they left Egypt. He counted them after they fell in the wake of the sin of the Golden Calf, to know the number of the survivors. And He counted them when He came to manifest His presence within them: on the first of Nissan the Sanctuary was erected, and [one month later] on the first of Iyar He counted them.”
Ramban (Nachmanides) adds that the Hebrew word for “count”, pakod, also means to “remember” and “be concerned with.”
Counting people is much more than a statistical census. It is about the people being cherished, recognized and cared about. When parents travel with their children, especially in foreign territories, they keep counting the children to make sure no one is lost.
This counting is not a mere technicality. It is about the inherent value we place in the person we count.
Psychologically speaking, the single biggest question we ask ourselves is: Do I matter? Do I truly matter? Amidst the billions of people in the world, and the myriad of different species and forms of life, let alone the trillions upon trillions of atoms and cells – one cannot help but wonder: Do I count? Does it make any real difference whether I exist or not?
Subjectively, of course each of us has our value to the people around us. And we make the best with what we have. And our egos of course work overtime to make us feel that we are self-important. But in the grand scheme of things is each one of us truly indispensable?
No small question. Because if you are dispensable, how invested will you be in your choices after all? If I don’t matter, then everything I do doesn’t matter.
Comes the book of Numbers and tells us: G-d counts each one of us. The greatest and the smallest are not more and not less than one unit. Because no one is optional, no one is dispensable.
You and you and you and you – and every individual on this earth – has a unique mission, an essential contribution to make that no one – NO ONE – else can accomplish but you!
And this inherent value is not just when you actually do the counting, but “all the time,” as Rashi says: “It validates you.”
Why then was the census only of those “From the age of twenty and upward?” Because this is the age, as the verse continues to explain, of “all who are fit to serve in the army.”
Every individual counts from the moment of birth throughout our entire lives (and beyond). But when individual indispensability is challenged and questioned, then it is especially necessary to emphasize and focus the power of each person’s inherent value.
A child born to healthy parents, nurtured and protected is constantly made to feel how he or she matters. Loving parents – the way it was meant to be – imbue their child with validation, confidence and a sense of absolute worth.
When do we need to be reminded – and empowered – that each of us is indispensable, when we go out into the “battlefield” of life, where people often live by the cruel “rule” of “survival of the fittest.” In a hostile environment, in an insecure world – where people threaten and feel threatened by each other – then we need to count each individual, essentially declaring: Don’t succumb to your depersonalization. You matter, you count, you are absolutely necessary.
This also explains why the census was taken only nine times throughout history and will be taken a tenth time in the future. If counting is vital to human value, why not count them “all the time” literally? Because during these ten times the essential indispensability of individuals was challenged – and they reflect the ten different universal situations when human worth is questioned – and that’s when we need the special emphasis of the census. But these countings infuse us with the constant feeling of importance, as if we are being counted “all the time.”
The vital message of individual worth – the indispensability of each of one us – is relevant today more than ever. Paradoxically, the more the world progresses technologically, the more depersonalized life seems to be. In this age of mass production, statistics and communications at the speed of light, our individual contribution can often get lost in the fast shuffle.
People today are often valued not for who they truly are – and for their unique contributions in life – but for their buying power, performance, looks, youth, and other superficial elements, rendering us into commodities rather than souls. Just read any marketing or advertising plan, how people are broken down into demographics that have little or nothing to do with their individual indispensable mission in life.
No wonder so many of us feel, despite all our comforts and high standards of living, insignificant. And nowhere is this more keenly felt than in the “battlefield” of the marketplace.
Indeed, the very nature of materialism can be seen as inherently impersonal. Can two bodies with no soul connect? Unless we find a deeper common denominator, one piece of matter will have no relationship with another except for selfish gain.
Add into the equation the dysfunctionality of our times. How many people today grew up in homes where not only were they not nurtured (which in itself is the greatest invalidation), but received the continuous message (in words, in absenteeism, or in outright abuse): “You don’t matter; your feelings don’t matter; you are only here to serve my needs; you are worthless; etc. etc.” – all the devastating forms of annihilating human dignity, of no less an innocent, vulnerable child…
[I’ll never forget the heart-wrenching letter I received from a woman describing her childhood trauma, and how she learned to discover that she did matter after all. Here is the text of the letter].
Thus we are told: Each of you entering into the “battle” of life is counted – counted as a unique individual. Regardless who you are, what you have accomplished, what class you occupy on the social scale, how much equity you have built up; regardless of what others think of you and what you think of yourself – you are absolutely significant.
And this count is “all the time.” The actual count is not all the time, but its effect is perpetual: It imbues you with a constant sense of value and self-worth; of always knowing that you are needed.
That is the message of the Book of Numbers: Birth is G-d saying that you matter.
Yes indeed, you matter and you are needed.