Midrash Rabba comments on the seeming contradiction between this careful counting of our people and the promise made to Avraham, our ancestor. He was told that our people would be as numerous as the stars of the sky and sands of the sea, too many to ever be counted!
The Midrash is exceedingly ingenious in solving this riddle. It says that we are counted only when we need to be called to account for failing to live up to the Covenant. But when we are fulfilling our charge to follow God and Torah, then our numbers are potentially without limit.
And that of course, is the rub. We have unlimited potential bound only by the limits of our abilities. That applies not only to Torah, but to every other endeavor in our lives.
We are not called to be perfect, however, only to strive to live up to our potential. And for the most part, we try very hard. Every single one of us constantly strives to make the best decisions with respect to ethics, mitzvah observance and community. And every single one of us fails.
But, as Rabbi and psychologist Jack Bloom would say, we do the best we can every single day according to the challenges, pressures, problems and doubts we all face. Decisions that seem incomprehensible to someone from the outside, like stealing, cheating or lying, make sense to that individual who struggles every day simply to live.
This is not to excuse immoral behavior, only to understand that we live in a desert that is open, filled with both pos- sibility and danger.
In the wilderness of the world around us today, whether we confront our yetzer ha-ra, our evil impulse, or our back- ground or our genetic predisposition, we all wish to be counted for the good. And to give us an example of what we might aspire to, our Midrash teaches:
[At first, God showed Avraham] one star, because at first he was alone in the world, the first to seek shelter under the wings of the Shechina. Next God showed him two, symbolizing Avraham and Yitzchak. Then three, representing Avraham, Yitzchak and Ya-akov. Then twelve, alluding to the twelve tribes. After that, seventy, corresponding to the seventy souls that went down to Egypt and finally, God showed Avraham countless constellations, indicating that in the distant future... they will become innumerable.
Our numbers are both our limit and our potential. It is we who decide to be bound or shackled by them. Let us choose well that we navigate the wilderness wisely, entering whole and coming out on the other side whole as well.
(This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinical Association.)