Paralyzed By Numbers

What can we learn from counting the Israelites?


Provided by American Jewish World Service, pursuing global justice through grassroots change.

Parashat Ki Tissa introduces the taboo against quantifying persons, enjoining the Israelites from giving themselves numbers. The sum of the people, it seems, is a dangerous thing–inviting evil, tempting fate, summoning the evil eye. Thus, God here commands that when Israel is to be counted the people are to use coins as proxy for their persons, so as to ensure ”that no plague may come upon them…” (Exodus 30:12).
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Despite the danger, the Torah seems perversely taken with memorializing tallies of persons, painstakingly recording each tribe’s sum when the census is ultimately taken: Reuben numbers 46,500, Simeon 59,300, Judah 74,600 and so forth (Numbers 1:20-44).

Rather than overcome the numbering taboo, however, the tallies seem instead to underscore it. These plump, round numbers are, inescapably, estimates–concessions to the necessity of the count, obfuscations to ward off the evil and anxiety that it invites.

Counting & the Evil Eye

In ritualized utterances today, cannily crafted to deflect the evil eye, one can still hear the raspy echo of the counting taboo. Yeshivah teachers will tally their charges with the totemic chant: ”Not one, not two, not three….” And many minyanim ensure a quorum not by counting heads, but by assigning to each person a word in a ten-worded biblical verse.

Neither are we as global citizens rid of the primal anxiety that counting persons inspires. We seem, instead, to have transmuted it–burying our agitation in an anesthetic refuge. Thus, it is too often the largest humanitarian crises, with their tallies of millions displaced, hungry, sick or dead, that we have the most trouble wrapping our hearts around.

It is as if our very beings revolt against the endless collection of so many suffering persons, and our sympathies–attenuated already by the myriad demands upon them–shut down, paralyzed by the immensity of the problem. It is not the evil eye that we fear in these massive numbers, but our own failure to respond to the vast suffering that they imply.

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Rachel Farbiarz is a graduate of Harvard College and Yale Law. Rachel worked as a clerk for the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, after which she practiced law focusing on the civil rights and humane treatment of prisoners.

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