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Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Counting Out a Balance

"Stand up and be counted!"
"Your vote counts!"
"YOU count!"
"You're just a number."
"You're just a statistic."

A slight shift in perspective, and what it means to be counted has opposite meanings. 

Several times in the Torah, God orders a census of the Israelite men.   Says Rashi, one of the greatest Torah scholars of all time: "Because (the Israelites) are so beloved, (God) counts them all the time" (Rashi on Numbers 1:1.)   The Holy One apparently had something in common with my grandmother, of blessed memory, who loved to launch into recitations of the names and birth-dates of her children and grandchildren: "In March I have two birthdays, Debbe and Ari, in April I have Alan, in May I have two, your mother and Maynard, in June . . . "  

Rather suspiciously, the Torah twice describes censuses that came up with the same number: 603,550 Israelites.  This coincidence led the author of HaEmek Davar commentary to suggest a radically different motivation for the census.  A king cannot travel without a proper retinue, and the King of Kings requires a retinue of -- you guessed it! -- 603,550.  Before God and Israel began their travels through the desert, they required a counting.  But the count needed only reach 603,550, and they were good to go.  "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."

Though Rashi and the author of HaEmek Davar lived eight centuries apart, their opinions are recorded on the same page of my Bible, and together their two perspectives 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 (should be written) ‘I am dirt and ashes (Genesis 18:27).’"  Like Alice in Wonderland, we need always on hand a drink to sip in case we should grow too large, and a cake to nibble should we shrink too small. 

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 -- DNA, and electrons, and black holes.  In an instant I can call up on my computer screen the entire sequence of the human genome.  A few keystrokes, and Google maps can direct me to any point in the world.  A few hours on an airplane, and I find myself in places that Moses never knew existed.  When we feel this powerful, it is easy to forget that a few milligrams of cholesterol in the wrong location is all it would take (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 6.8 billion people in the world, filling out the numbers should be no problem. . .

Six point eight billion people?!  Just counting to six billion, if I were to count one number at a time, with no break for sleeping or eating, would take 200 years. 

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 number.   And who am I to claim a limit on how high the Infinite One can count?

The Psalmist asks:
 מה אנוש כי תזכרנו?                What is man, that You should remember him?   

And yet, affirms the same Psalmist, You do remember us,
וכבוד והדר תעטרהו                 And You crowned (humanity) with honor and beauty

 מה אדיר שמך בכל הארץ        How majestic is Your name in all the land!
(Psalms 8)

1 comment:

  1. I truly believe God lets us hear or read things when we need them.

    "A person should have two pockets. In one (should be written) ‘The world was created for me (Sanhedrin 4:5).’ In the other (should be written) ‘I am dirt and ashes (Genesis 18:27).’"

    Just today I was talking to a friend about this very topic and couldn't remember the exact words to bring my point home, then I read your post and it helped me explain myself better, now she will be able to help her son understand this as well- so thank you.

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