Making People Count by Not Counting People

This week's parasha, Ki Tissa, opens with a curious set of verses. God commands Moses to count the Israelites through a census, but almost simultaneously (literally within the same verse) reveals the act of counting human beings is actually incredibly problematic... enough to bring about a plague!

This week's parasha, Ki Tissa, opens with a curious set of verses. God commands Moses to count the Israelites through a census, but almost simultaneously (literally within the same verse) reveals the act of counting human beings is actually incredibly problematic... enough to bring about a plague! Here's the strange opening to the parasha:

"The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: When you take a census of the Israelites according to their numbers, each shall give an atonement for his soul when they are counted, so that there will not be a plague among them when they are counted. This they shall give, everyone who passes through the counting: a half a shekel..." (Exodus 30:11-13).

Indeed, a reluctance to count people -- and fear about what the act of counting may mean or bring about -- runs deep in our Jewish tradition. It shows up in narrative form, for example in the story of when King David's counting of his people results in actual plagues (see I Chronicles 21 and II Samuel 24). It makes its way into legal tradition, as later halakhic codes prohibit an unnecessary census of Jews. And finally, it shows up in minhag (custom) too. Those who have spent time in more observant communities may have heard someone checking to see if there's a minyan for prayer by counting "not one, not two, not three..." or by reciting a ten-word verse like "hoshia et amecha u'varech et nachalatecha ur'eim v'nasem ad ha-olam" (from Psalms 28) in order to count words, not people.

Why the deep-seated ambivalence about counting human beings?? Perhaps because we Jews know that it's all too easy to make people into statistics. When we are focused not on real people, but instead on numbers, we can forget the humanity of the individuals concerned. (This, as we all know, is precisely what Nazis set out to do in tattooing numbers onto the arms of concentration camp prisoners.) As Jews, we hold tight to the fundamental belief that every human being is unique and valuable. There are plenty of good reasons why we might need to count or quantify, but as we do it, we must remind ourselves that doing so is inherently inadequate and complicated.

We live inside this tension, of both needing to count and not wanting to count. For example, I can tell you that as of today, over 50 million Americans have received a first dose of a Covid-19 vaccine, and another 25 million Americans are now fully vaccinated. However, what I most want to know is: Have my loved ones been vaccinated yet? When will it be my turn? What about my children's teachers and others in my community? When will enough vaccines have been administered that our day-to-day activities feel significantly safer?

Large numbers also flatten the experience of individuals. At the beginning of Covid last year, we said "we are all in the same boat," and indeed, we felt that we were as we embarked on a new pandemic mode. Quickly, though, we learned that this was not entirely true. Socio-economic disparities, systemic racism, geography, health care status, and more have made the experience of this year very different for different groups within our broader society. Now, we've come to understand that "we are all in the same storm, but decidedly not in the same boat."

And, as a whole, we know that our Kavana community is -- statistically, on average -- incredibly fortunate and privileged. But even within this community, each individual's experience has been quite unique. In the adult discussion group at a recent Prep & Practice event, parents shared about how things were going in their household. Some families were struggling with virtual school or lack of childcare, others were juggling responsibilities like grad school or caring for elderly parents. We walked away with an understanding that while everyone is experiencing this time as challenging, we all have our own versions of what "hard" looks like. [If this general theme resonates with you, I'm happy to share two recent articles that I found helpful in thinking about where we are in this pandemic time: Dr. Betsy Stone's validating piece "Is It Possible to be Even More Exhausted," and "Finding Our Way Through the Rest of the Pandemic" by business writer Art Kleiner, which helped orient me to the overall arc of this time and how people are experiencing it both similarly and differently.]

Indeed, numbers are inherently challenging, and big numbers in particular can make us lose sight of individual experiences. Our minds can't grasp the 516,000+ Covid deaths in the US alone, but perhaps we can wrap our heads around the fact that in our very own community, Barbara Schwartz will be marking the yahrtzeit of her husband this weekend (click here to read the Seattle Times obituary for UW pathologist Stephen Schwartz from last March, and join us for Mourners' Kaddish this Saturday evening.)

Similarly, in the media, there's been much speculation and debate about whether we'll see a Covid baby boom or baby bust. To be honest, I don't much care. Judaism teaches that each and every new baby could be the messiah, or at least has the potential to bring redemption and healing to the world. (Cool connections include the fact that the same Hebrew word used for "chevlei leidah," labor/birth pains, and "chevlei mashiach," the birth-pangs of a messianic age.) And so, we pause to marvel at the miracle of one new life, celebrating the wonderful news that our community members Cara and Tony Abrams welcomed their baby girl into the world on Monday morning!! (More details to come next week, once she has received a name!)

In one final example, the students in Kavana's Middle School program have been learning about the Holocaust this quarter. But, it is impossible to truly fathom numbers like the 6 million who were murdered by the Nazis, and the millions more who survived the Holocaust. And so, I am grateful to our community member, Charlotte Wollheim, who joined them last night to share the powerful story of her singular experience, as a child who couldn't attend public school in Germany, who had to flee to an orphanage, who lost family members in Terezin and more. It was such a gift for our middle school students to view this huge piece of history not through numbers and statistics, but through an intensely personal lens!

Parashat Ki Tissa opens with a census -- a command to count human beings -- about which the Torah itself is deeply ambivalent. Today, this ambivalence remains. As we read statistics -- about our present, our history, and our world -- we must strive to keep in mind that each and every number represents many real human beings, with a diverse array of experiences and life stories.

In this week -- as we mourn losses and welcome new life in our Kavana community, receive vaccines and study history -- may we be blessed with the ability to move humanity forward, by seeing one precious individual at a time.

Rabbi Rachel Nussbaum