My grandmother, of blessed memory, loved to count her children and grandchildren.
My grandmother, of blessed memory, loved to count her children and grandchildren. She would order us by birthdate. “In April I have one – Alan, in May I have two – your mother and Maynard, in June . . . ”
As part of the lead-up to Purim, and then Passover, Jews around the world will read an extra Torah portion this week, called Shekalim. It is a passage from Exodus, recounting an ancient census. I wonder what was the spirit of this counting of all adult male Israelites? Was it done with the feeling of my grandmother counting her children, or was it more like counting forks before setting the table?
Twice the biblical census came up with the same number: 603,550 (Exodus 38 and Numbers 1). To explain the seeming coincidence, HaEmek Davar (19th C, Lithuania) suggested that this number was the required retinue for the King of Kings. Before God and Israel could begin their travels, they counted the men up to 603,550. “From then on, even if many more boys came of age they were not counted – unless someone died or left the camp for another reason, then they would fill the retinue with others.” Like my forks – I don’t care how many I have altogether, so long as I have enough for each person.
Rashi (11th C, France) had a different take. He claimed the two counts were done close together in time, and the population had not changed. “Because (the Israelites) are so beloved, (God) counts them all the time,” wrote Rashi on Numbers 1:1. On Parshat Shekalim, he wrote that God ordered the census after a plague, for the Israelites are “like sheep who are beloved to their master”.
Though Rashi and the author of HaEmek Davar lived eight centuries apart, their opinions are printed on the same page, and together they fulfill a chasidic saying: “A person should have two pockets. In one (should be written) ‘The world was created for me (Sanhedrin 4:5).’ In the other ‘I am dirt and ashes (Genesis 18:27).’”
In the age of science, we need those pockets more than ever.
I know more secrets of creation than even Moses himself could have known. I can search the sequence of the entire human genome on my computer. A few keystrokes, and Google maps can direct me to any point in the world, much of which Moses never knew existed.
When we feel this powerful, it is easy to forget that a few milligrams of cholesterol in the wrong location (God forbid!) and I would be gone. HaEmek Davar’s commentary reminds us: my disappearance would matter little to God, so long as another person could fill out the numbers. And with 7 billion people in the world, filling out the numbers should be no problem.
How could my life possibly matter to the Rock of the Universe? Our galaxy alone contains 100 thousand million stars, and the universe contains millions upon millions of galaxies. What matters one planet on one little star, let alone one life on that planet?
But Rashi reminds us that the Holy One counted the people one at a time, treasuring each and every one. Who am I to claim a limit on how high the Infinite One can count?
The Psalmist asks: “What is humanity, that You should remember them?” And yet, affirms the same Psalmist, You do remember us: “And You crowned (humanity) with honor and beauty…How majestic is Your name in all the land!” (Psalms 8)