Task completed. But did Moses really do what he was told to do?
S’eu et rosh kol adat b’nei Yisrael … Moses is instructed to tally up “the whole community of the Children of Israel.” But do able-bodied men represent the whole community?
Perhaps Moses misunderstood. After all, the word adat can be rather ambiguous. It can be translated as “community.” But it can also refer to a “unit, faction, band or company,” to a segment of the larger population. So, did Moses count the segment of the community that was male, of age and able to bear arms? Yes. Did he take a true census (think of those forms that ask for a myriad of demographic information) of the entire community? No.
So who wasn’t counted? The women, the elderly, the infirm, the young … these are the groups of people often missing from our Torah passages. These are the groups not enumerated when assembling an army, determining tribal placement or establishing leadership. The question then: If those who are counted (for military service or otherwise) are of special significance within the society, are those who are not considered to be less valuable?
Our tradition teaches, “The number of the children of Israel shall be like the sands of the sea, not to be measured and numbered” (Hosea 2:1) (BT Yoma 22b). In other words, our worth is not to be enumerated.
Cantor Rachel Stock Spilker wrote, “A number can measure whether an army has enough people, but it can never measure the worth of the individual people in that army.” Being counted is not what makes us count.
Then what does?
Who we are is not what makes us count. How we are is what matters. Do we treat others well? Do we follow the commandments to the best of our ability? Do we live according to our highest ideals? Are we open to new ideas? Do we bring blessing to the lives of those around us? Can each of us be described as a mentsch? These are the things that define us … and make us count.
In Bamidbar, the census indicates what was valued in that time, at that place. Knowing the number of troops was essential for Israel’s survival. That number was recorded. Other numbers were not. What matters is that we know that each one of us, counted or not, counts.
(This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.)