What Really Counts?
A look at who was missing from the census, and why counting can sometimes be dangerous.
Reprinted with permission from The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, edited by Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Andrea L.
Weiss (New York: URJ Press and Women of Reform Judaism, 2008).
There is power in taking a census. When God commands Moses to do so at the beginning of Parashat B'midbar, only male Israelites over the age of 20 who are able to bear arms are considered. In the text, Moses is told to tally up kol adat b'nei yisrael, literally "the whole community of the Children of Israel." But do able-bodied males over 20 years old represent the whole community? While adat is often translated as "community," it can also refer to an "assembly, band, company, or faction," hence only one segment of the larger population. This nuance allows us to recognize all who are not counted: women, minors, the elderly, and the physically, mentally, or emotionally challenged.
In Torah, these people are usually missing from numerations as well as narrations. Those who are counted have a special worth to the society, while those who are not may be considered less valuable and are, therefore, less visible.
The Danger in Taking a Census
There is also danger in taking a census. This parashah is all about enumerating people, as the English name of the book, "Numbers," suggests. However, the Talmud asserts that "it is forbidden to count [the nation of] Israel even for the sake of a commandment ... [because] whoever counts Israel transgresses a prohibition, as it is written, 'The number of the children of Israel shall be like the sands of the sea, not to be measured' (Hosea 2:1)" (BT Yoma 22b).
Rashi explains that we must count something each person gives (like the half-shekel) rather than count actual people, because then "there will not be a plague among them, for the evil eye can affect that which is counted--and a plague may come upon them as we found in the days of David" (Rashi on Exodus 30:1). Is Rashi merely superstitious, or is he suggesting that it is dangerous to trivialize a person's essence? His comment teaches us that we must value each human as one who is made b'tzelem Elohim; in God's image (Genesis 1:27). A number can measure whether an army has enough people, but it can never measure the worth of the individual people in that army.