We Don’t Count

Last Saturday night we ushered in the festival of Shavuot, which celebrates the story from the Book of Exodus of the revelation at Sinai—the story of how, after freeing the Israelite slaves from Egyptian bondage, God gives the Torah to Moses on Mount Sinai. This act is the foundation story of the covenant, the sacred bond which binds each person to the divine and each person to each other.

While this is the reason for the holiday, its name betrays a different origin. Shavuot in Hebrew means “weeks,” and it is because the holiday falls seven weeks after Passover. This is based on the holiday’s agricultural roots; originally Shavuot marked the end of the spring harvest season that began at Passover time. The Torah says to literally count the days between the two festivals. (Indeed, unlike the other holidays, Shavuot does not have a set date in the Torah—just that it falls 50 days after Passover begins.)

While the agricultural roots are not primary anymore, and while we can fix the calendar in advance, we still count the days. This period between the two holidays is called the Omer—the Omer is a sheaf of grain—and the practice is to recite a blessing each evening and then count the day with a simple formula, “Today is the Xth day of the Omer, marking X weeks and X days of the Omer.” We last counted the Omer this year on Friday night—the 49th day—and with the onset of Shavuot we completed our counting ritual.

This is not the only time in our tradition that we count. Numbers have great meaning in Jewish tradition, and the fact that “counting as ritual” is a part of our practice may not be a surprise. In addition to the “Counting of the Omer” we can also think of the four cups of wine that mark the Passover Seder or the enumeration of the 613 Commandments. When we light the menorah on Hanukkah, we are also counting—each new candle for each day indicates what day we are celebrating until we get to the last night, the eighth night, and our menorah is fully lit. And even each week we count the days until the sacred day of Shabbat, for in Hebrew, the days of the week are not Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, etc. but Yom Rishon, Yom Sheni, Yom Shlishi, etc. (“First Day, Second Day, Third Day, etc.”). Shabbat is the only day that has a “name.”

And while we have many counting rituals, according to Jewish law and practice there is one thing we are forbidden to count. People.

We are not allowed to count people. Right before Shavuot last week we celebrated Shabbat, and the weekly Torah portion for that Shabbat was Bamidbar, the first portion of the Book of Numbers. While in Hebrew Bamidbar means “In the Wilderness,” taken from the first verse of the book (although it is a hint of the theme of the book, the wanderings of the Israelites), the English name is a reference to the first action in the book: a census. Prior to their wanderings, God tells Moses to take a census of the Israelites in order to be prepared for the journey and to “line up” correctly.

But as we learn from another place in the Torah, an earlier census described in Exodus 30, the census is not done directly. The census was conducted by collecting a unit of money, a half-shekel, from each person. Thus the half-shekels, and not the people directly, were counted, and funds turned over for the Tabernacle and the public welfare.

This act comes to teach a lesson–that we should not count people directly, but rather indirectly. In practice today, this comes up most often when the need arises to determine whether or not there is a minyan present. A minyan is a quorum of 10 adult Jews required for certain prayers, such as the Mourner’s Kaddish, during the worship service. If the room is packed, then there is no need to count. But if there is a small number, it is necessary to count in order to determine that there is ten.

So how do we count if we are not allowed to count? There are several customs. One is to count body parts or articles of clothing, that is, one does not count people, but noses, or shirts. Another is to say, “not-one, not-two…” (I learned this as a kid.) A third practice is to use a phrase or a biblical verse that has ten words in it, reciting each word as you note the people in attendance. (This is the one I use, using Hamotzi, the blessing over bread. Psalm 23:10 is a popular choice as well.)

Perhaps silly in practice, but not in spirit. The reason why we do it like this is hinted in the Exodus passage mentioned above: “When you take a census of the Israelite people according to their enrollment, each shall pay God a ransom for himself on being enrolled, that no plague may come upon them through their being enrolled. This is what everyone who is entered in the records shall pay: a half-shekel by sanctuary weight…” (Exodus 30:12-13) With the juxtaposition of the census, the half-shekel and the plague, the text is understood to mean that it is the act of conducting the census with the half-shekel that avoids the plague. A plague will come if you count people directly.

Or, in other words, bad things will happen when you reduce a person to a number.

Here then is an important lesson about our common humanity. Each and every one of us is a fully whole human being with hopes, dreams, ideas, fears, joys and pains. We are unique individuals connected to yet separate from those who we are in contact with. To assign a person a number, even if for a good reason, is to take away a part of that humanity.

One of our fundamental Jewish teachings is about the sanctity of human life, both of our own and those who are around us. The Torah that we celebrated last week as our foundational text teaches that we are all created in the image of God, and that we are commanded to “love your neighbor as yourself.” This is at the heart of all of the ethical imperatives expected of us, and the simple act of not counting is a good way to remind ourselves of this principle.

As our community is still reeling from and coming to terms with the police shooting of two African American men last week, marchas the #blacklivesmatter movement comes to our streets, we would do well to remember this. Whatever the circumstances of this particular shooting, we are reminded that because of history, because of bias, we still have much work to do to realize this ideal of a common humanity and equality in our country.

And it will take our humanity to realize this. To understand that none of us is perfect and that we make mistakes, and at the same time we have the capacity to grow and change. That no one is wholly good or wholly evil. The circumstances of this incident will be investigated, which will probably be unsatisfying to some. But the real test is what comes next—can we take what happened last week and become better people and a better community because of it?

To do that, we must remember that we matter, but we don’t count.

Everyone Counts, or the Tragedy of the Subway Commons

Ok, another reason my faith in humanity is tested, this time coming out of Los Angeles.

Apparently, the city of Los Angeles has been losing millions of dollars from its subway/light rail transit system. Ridership is robust, and for all intents and purposes, the 20 year old system is successful. What began with 4.5 miles of track and 5 stations has exploded into 88 miles and 101 stations. The only problem is the large number of riders who don’t pay the fare.

LA train


Why? In an attempt to encourage mass transit in a city that is attached to its cars, the planners of the LA subway system did not install turnstiles at the station entryways. The system ran on the honor system–riders were expected to buy their $1.50 fare and the only enforcement was the potential to be asked to show one’s ticket to a police officer. Failure to produce a ticket would result in a $250 summons. And even then, the potential for the enforcement of this summons was low. So Angelenos did their calculation and decided it was worth the (low) risk of potentially getting caught and did not pay their fares. The result? The aforementioned losses and the decision by LA transit officials to install turnstiles. You can read the whole story here.

On the one hand you could scoff and say the city got what they had coming to them, of course not installing turnstiles would encourage people to not pay their fare. But should that really be the case? Why isn’t the honor system enough? Because, as this episode has proven and we may already have suspected, we humans are not very good at the honor system. Most people, sadly, are just in it for themselves. Most people are willing to cheat if the risk of getting caught is low. Most people don’t think about the greater whole in making their individual decisions.

To me, this is a good example of the “tragedy of the commons.” In this theory, in relation to a shared resources,  people will independently privilege their own self-interest to the extent that it ultimately depletes the resource. The idea comes from the common areas of British towns–shared land for grazing cattle. Each individual farmer would graze his livestock on the commons, and each farmer would potentially seek to maximize his or her own benefit by adding cows. Ultimately, the commons would be overgrazed and unusable for everyone.

In the subway story, the mass transit system is the shared resource. Each person however tries to maximize his or her self-interest by not paying the fare. Yet the shared resource suffers, with millions of dollars in losses, money which will need to be made up somehow. With the subways in particular and the “tragedy of the commons” in general, individuals “win” in the short term, but everyone loses in the long term.

In this week’s Torah reading of Bamidbar, we start the book of Numbers. And the book is called Numbers in English precisely because of this first section, which is all about numbers. God tells Moses to take a census: “Take a census of the whole Israelite community by the clans of its ancestral houses, listing the names, every male, head by head. You and Aaron shall record them by their groups, from the age of twenty years up, all those in Israel who are able to bear arms. Associated with you shall be a person from each tribe, each one the head of his ancestral house.” (Numbers 1:2-4) The Torah then meticulously records the population of each tribe.

So why take a census? And why spent so much ink recording the specific numbers? Inherent in God’s command is the ability to bear arms–the census is meant to be a matter of military preparation. But irrespective of this specific detail, the point of the census is to get a sense of the population in preparation for the Israelites’ upcoming journey. For while we have been reading the Torah for weeks and weeks, we may not have realized that while the text (and we) have been absorbed in the details of law and practice, in the meta-narrative of the Israelites they haven’t moved in a while. They are still encamped around Mount Sinai, their first stop after leaving Egypt. Indeed, it is only in the Torah reading two weeks from now that we learn of the Israelites breaking camp and travelling.

The census is a final step–after the recounting of all the laws–before the community moves forward. To provide a reckoning of the size of the population before the community moves forward gives us the clear message: everyone counts. It is everybody’s responsibility to follow the law, it is everyone’s responsibility to uphold the tradition. If one person is lax, then the entire community suffers. Each individual has merit, worth–and responsibility.

The Torah is there to ensure that the tragedy of the commons does not happen. The Torah is there to ensure that the Los Angeles transit system does not lose millions. The fact of the census in parashat Bamidbar teaches that each individual is not solely an individual, but part of a greater whole. That there is no such thing as individual self-interest above the community’s interest.

Individual acts do make a difference. Every person trying to save $1.50 by cheating results in a financial crisis. Every person counts. And every person needs to contribute.