Bamidbar – you can count on this sedra
This sedra starts the book of Numbers which is appropriate because it s indeed filled with numbers. First a census is taken of the Israelites, it recounts the number of Israelites in each tribe and in each of the four “flags,” and then gives the grand totals. The Levites are then counted—twice. The firstborns earn their very own headcount, too.
The Rambam explains explains that rather than count the people directly, the method of counting was to collect a half-shekel coin from each person and then count the coins.
To actually count Jews directly is forbidden, as the prophet says: “And the number of the children of Israel shall be as the sand of the sea, which shall neither be measured nor counted.” (Hosea 2:1. Also the Haftorah for this sedra). The commentaries say the reason for this is that counting Jews directly can bring a judgment on the individuals who, if not deemed worthy, may be punished. In addition, the Panim Yafot, a commentary on the Torah by Rabbi Pinchas Halevi Horowitz (1730-1805), explains that when the Jews are in a state of unity, they are connected to their Source and do not need added protection. When they are counted as individuals, they become “separated” and are subject to individual scrutiny. Although the prohibition against counting Jews is not included in the Code of Jewish Law, it is discussed by the later Halachic authorities. In place of counting individuals, it is permitted to count a particular body part such as noses or fingers. Once one has counted in a permissible way, it is not forbidden to say the actual total number of people. To overcome this, a tradition when counting for a minyan uses a 10 word Torah verse: “Hoshiah et amecha u’varech et nachalatecha ur’em venas’em ad ha’olam”. Which translates as “Save Your people and bless Your inheritance, and tend them and elevate them forever”. Another convention some use is to say: “Not one, not two, etc.” Some permit counting if it is done in one’s mind and not audibly. Others forbid this counting as well. So really only G-d is allowed to count us, only He is seen as having the ability to count without discounting, so to speak. So it’s seems Jews don’t count…each other.
The standard Hebrew word for counting is ‘cheshbon’. But throughout the Torah a different word, ‘pekudim’ is used. This word and its derivatives are used in many different ways throughout the Torah and Prophets. Among them are: to remember, be missed, assign, destiny, accountability and command. Rabbi Sholom Raichik of Chabad suggests one unifying definition is “to take notice”. This word is used when G-d instructs Moses to count the Jewish people, he wants Moses to take notice of every person and to value them as individuals.
If you needed more, we are at the moment counting ‘up’ to the festival of Shavuot. Usually we count ‘down’ to an anticipated event like a birthday or a special occasion, but in anticipating the momentous event of the giving of the Torah, we count ‘up’, each day, as if ascending upwards becoming closer to being Hashem’s chosen people.
In the Torah, too, every letter counts. One missing letter invalidates the entire scroll. Likewise, one missing Jew leaves Jewish peoplehood lacking and incomplete.
Rav Yisroel Salanter, father of the Mussar movement, once said, “Every Jew should feel as if he or she is the last Jew on earth. And if they won’t do what needs to be done, there would be no one else to do it.” So the message is stand up and be counted, but count your blessings and know we can count on each other.