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.