The third book of the Torah - known in Hebrew as B’midbar, ‘in the wilderness’ or ‘in the desert’ - has the English title Numbers, so named because it begins with a census of the Israelite nation. This week’s parashah is four chapters of mainly numbers. Pretty dry stuff to say the least.
I was never very good at math. Algebra confused me. Geometry made no sense, and I avoided calculus at all costs. I have sometimes joked that I went into the rabbinate because after “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One” I was done with the math.
But counting - as opposed to math – has always been something I felt deserved serious and sustained attention. And so does our tradition.
Psalm 90 recited at graveside implores God: So teach us to number our days that we may get us a heart of wisdom. In other words, let the stark reminder that our days are not unlimited – numbered – prompt us to make the limited time that we do have really count for something.
We often speak of time as if it were a commodity. We make time. We waste time. We talk of buying or killing time. But Judaism counsels us again and again to sanctify time - by counting it always as precious and seeing in it an opportunity to elevate our lives to something higher, better and good. The whole concept of living in the moment is just another attempt to make every moment count.
And there is more to this counting thing. The story is told of an Eastern European shtetl so small there were only ten Jewish men in residence. These were dedicated individuals, and without fail they gathered together every Shabbat to make the minyan – the required quorum for Sabbath worship. One day a new Jewish family moved to town. There was great joy and excitement. But as soon as they had eleven men, the synagogue could never manage a minyan again.
If we think, when we know that we are indispensible, we make a point of showing up, of being there, of pitching in. And the truth is that when it comes to a congregation, a community, a world we are each and every one of us indispensible.
The tradition counsels us to say, “For my sake, the world was brought into being.” Thus my actions determine if there was value to the very act of creation itself. Make believe if you must, but each and every thing I do is somehow indispensible and essential. There is a unique contribution that only I can make and without my singular contribution, collectively, creation cannot be sustained.
Now back to the Israelite census. Think of it this way. We usually only count things that are precious or important. If you are lucky enough to have sterling silverware, you count the forks and the spoons after every use to make sure you haven’t misplaced any of the pieces. They are too valuable to lose. Rashi on this week’s parashah: Out of awareness of the love of them, God counts each (and every) one of them every hour.
The census data of the Book of Numbers implies something essential and supremely important. In the sight of God and the world, we count - each and every one of us, each in our own way and in our own doings. That means that in the grand scheme of things each one of us is precious, valuable and indispensible to the betterment of humanity. I know it. God knows it. And now, just in case you didn’t know it or needed a reminder, so do you.