This week's Torah portion, Ki Tisa, is filled with action, drama, and explosive notions of faith and fear. Not once but twice, we are taken on a journey with Moses to the top of the mountain, where he encounters God and receives the teachings that will guide the Jewish people forever. We read about mountain climbing, tablet smashing, golden calf worship, anger, fury and, tragically, much killing as well.
But what particularly strikes me is a seemingly simple verse that occurs at the beginning of the parashah. God instructs Moses: "When you take a census of the Israelite people according to their enrollment, each shall pay Adonai a ransom for himself on being enrolled...." (Exodus 30:12) Why must a ransom be paid to Adonai by each person who is counted?
In The Torah: A Modern Commentary, Rabbi Gunther Plaut explains that "counting was considered a privilege belonging to God, and humans conducting a census without divine approval thereby placed themselves in dire danger." (p. 632) Only God merits the privilege of counting. But surely we human beings count things all the time. We count what we have; we count what we don't have; we count our money, our attendance, our votes, and our Beany Babies. We count just about everything that is quantifiable.
So what makes counting a divine act? Maybe it is precisely because human counting is so quantifiable. We cannot count love, and we cannot count faith, and we cannot count patience, and we cannot count belief. But these kinds of counting are the most important of all!
If we think about it, the ways in which we use the word "count" reveal that we know that God's kind of counting is most important. We say "Let's make this one count" when we mean "Let's make it matter." We say "I'm counting on you" when we mean that we are depending on someone. All of a sudden, we can see that counting is not just about numbers but about significance and dependability as well.
Just think: Our parashah teaches us that the two stone tablets were written "with the finger of God" (Exodus 31:18), the very part of our body that we use when counting.
Could it be that our parashah begins with this lesson about counting because it is the key to understanding all that is yet to unfold regarding the golden calf, the smashing of the tablets, and the second opportunity that Moses and the people are given to do the right thing?
How would the story of the golden calf have been different if, while waiting for Moses to come down from the mountain, the Children of Israel had made each day count instead of counting the days until Moses' return? How would the story of our lives be different if instead of counting our money, we made our money count; if instead of counting the days until our next vacation, we made each day count? The question is, Can we be counted upon?
For further reading: W. Gunther Plaut, The Torah: A Modern Commentary. (New York: UAHC Press, 1981).
Rabbi Stacy Offner is the rabbi of Temple Beth Tikvah in Madison, CT.