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Who Counts?

  • Who Counts?

    B'midbar, Numbers 1:1−4:20

In Parashat B'midbar, we begin reading the Book of Numbers. Its title, derived from the Latin Numeri and the Greek, Arithmoi, refers to the census taken of the Israelites as they ready themselves to march off into the wilderness of Sinai. Every male over the age of twenty was to be counted, with a separate census taken of the Levites, who were to protect and minister to the needs of the Tabernacle.

Who is counted when a census is taken? Among the Israelites the purpose for the census was to provide a safe and strategic organization for the journey on which they were about to embark: "Take a census of the whole Israelite community by the clans of its ancestral houses, listing the names, every male, head by head.... Record them by their groups, from the age of twenty years up, all those in Israel who are able to bear arms." (Numbers1:2-3) The process took twenty days to complete; yet this systematic approach takes no account of the women and children who were present. Also notable is that at this point in the text, no distinction is made between older men and younger men who might have been unfit for military service, since the census counts all men over the age of twenty who are able to bear arms.

As we approach the year 2000, a new census of the American people will be taken. Who will be counted among us? Should we seek to be inclusive in our accounting, or is there a more focused and pointed approach to the process? President Clinton said in his State of the Union Address, "Since every person in America counts, every American ought to be counted." Yet when evidence suggested that some racial and ethnic minorities were currently undercounted in past censuses and would be more accurately counted through the use of statistical sampling, the Supreme Court concluded "that the Census Act prohibits the proposed uses of statistical sampling in calculating the population for purposes of apportionment." When we count numbers, do we really want to count everyone? Or do some people count more than others?

During the preparation for Operation Solomon in 1991, the Jewish Agency utilized a census conducted by ORT (Organization for Rehabilitation and Training) in Ethiopia. This census, carried out under the guise of planning for nonsectarian vocational schools, provided a cover to help ascertain the Jewish population in Ethiopia, and it also facilitated the airlift of 14,400 Ethiopian Jews within a forty-eight-hour period. Remaining in Ethiopia is a small group numbering 2,500 called the Quara Jews. They are currently receiving support from the JDC (Joint Distribution Committee) in Ethiopia, and no one doubts their right to make aliyah, including the Israeli government. Logistics aside, one must ask what is causing the delay in taking the remaining Quara Jews out of Ethiopia? Once again, we must ask, Who counts? A debate rages within the Jewish community about the Felash Mura, Ethiopians who converted to Christianity within the last century and are now reclaiming their Jewish ancestry. The political implications of taking this group to Israel are staggering. Do these maybe thirteen thousand or maybe fifty thousand people count as Jews? Should the Israeli government be accountable for performing the mitzvah of pidyon shavuyim, redeeming the captives?

Who counts among us? We make distinctions even within our own communities. We ask, How many are Orthodox Jews and how many are Reform Jews? How many Jews have intermarried and how many have chosen to become Jewish? How many members are affiliated with our synagogues and how many Jews are not counted because they have only a tangential connection to the organized Jewish community? We often ask ourselves, How many people came to services? How many people contributed to this fund or prepared that program? But what do we learn from all of our counting? Census taking helps us to quantify, to categorize, and to consider the way in which the pieces of the puzzle fit together. But perhaps the most important information comes after the taking of the census, when we learn which people among our numbers we can count on.

At the time of this writing in 1999, Cantor Alane S. Katzew was the cantor of Temple Israel of New Rochelle, NY, and the vice president of the American Conference of Cantors.

Stand Up, Be Counted, and Be Accountable
Davar Acher By: 
Joan Carr

There is much anxiety these days about Y2K, the coming of the millennium. Amidst all the uncertainty, one thing is for sure: There will be another census taken in the United States. Census taking has a long history. In fact, this week's parashahB'midbar (Numbers 1:1 - 4:20), begins with the census taken thirteen months after the Exodus from Egypt. What were the objectives of this census?

Some biblical scholars suggest that the census was one of God's ways of showing love for the people: God counted the people just as a king might count his fortune. However, there are also practical implications of census taking in this first parashah of the Book of Numbers. Because it counted only males, this census determined the military might of the community. Perhaps more important for us, it also established a pattern for community organization. By emphasizing the genealogical background and tribal affiliation of the Israelites, the census defined several levels of community that were significant-family, tribe, and household of Israel. One's tribe determined one's role in the community. The census set standards for leadership, defined the role of the individual, and cataloged resources, talents, and abilities. Everyone had a job. The members of all the tribes except the Levites encircled the Tabernacle, protecting it. The Levites were responsible for the care and the transport of the Tabernacle. The survival of the community was dependent on every person's fulfilling his or her responsibility.

In our time, censuses are also important. Consider National Jewish Population Surveys. Although we may not know the genealogical background of the respondents, we do learn who lives where and with whom. We learn about educational background, religious affiliation and level of observance, frequency of tzedakah donations, interest in Israel, and membership in communal organizations. Just like in the biblical census, modern Jewish Population Surveys establish a pattern of community organization. We can learn that today, too, everyone must play a role in the community: Some will be leaders; others, active supporters; still others, members in name only. The parashah teaches us, however, that it is not enough to be a member in name only: Everyone must make a contribution to the community, donating his or her financial resources, time, and talent.

Just as Moses used the census in B'midbar to organize the Israelites for their long sojourn in the desert, so the demographic information garnered through a modern-day census guides community goal setting and decision making. And just as survival in biblical times depended on everyone doing his or her job, today Jewish continuity depends on each individual being an active, responsible member of the Jewish people.

Some discussion questions:

  1. Why do you think such a strong emphasis was placed on genealogical background and tribal affiliation during the biblical census?
  2. The expression "Stand up and be counted" has important implications when it is used in the context of Jewish survival. How are you counted? How is your family counted? How is your community counted? How could you be counted in more ways?

At the time of this writing in 1999, Joan Carr was the director of education at Congregation Sha'aray Shalom in Hingham, Massachsetts, and  a member of the Executive Board of the National Association of Temple Educators.

Reference Materials: 

B'midbar, Numbers 1:1-4:20
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,028-1,043; Revised Edition, pp. 897-916;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 787-814

When do we read B'midbar

2021, May 15
4 Sivan, 5781
2022, June 4
5 Sivan, 5782
2023, May 20
29 Iyyar, 5783
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