Jewish communities, from biblical times to the present day, have often been deeply focused on counting our numbers. This week’s Torah portion, Parashat Bamidbar, is the second-longest in the entire Torah. Its contents? A long account of a divinely-mandated census. The idea behind the census is that Moses and the rest of the leadership of the Israelites need to know how many people comprise their newly free nation. Earlier in the Torah (Exodus 30:12), we learn that, because each Israelite was required to give a sum of money for the upkeep of the Tabernacle, the leadership was able to count how many people were in their society by counting the donations… perhaps a biblical equivalent of an Annual Benefit? (We at JCP held our own virtual Benefit yesterday, but our Online Auction is live through Monday at noon).
Although God instructed Moses and Aaron to take the census in this Torah portion, other biblical leaders are punished by God when they decide to do the same. According to the Book of I Chronicles, King David, looking to assess the power of his kingdom, was convinced by the Satan (which in Judaism is understood to be an inciting spirit) to “number the people of Israel.” As a punishment for taking this census, God sends a plague that kills 700,000 people (I Chronicles 21:1, 14). This account has led to superstition and hesitancy in the Jewish community around participating in the secular census, and even around counting the number of people in a room. I know many traditional grandparents who refuse to say how many grandchildren they have; assigning them a number would bring bad luck.
In modern times, too, there is a fascination with knowing our numbers. For instance, the Pew Research Center on Jewish Americans in 2020, and a similar report published in 2013, presents every statistic and graph under the sun in order to determine just about every trend and pattern imaginable: how many Jews identify with a particular denomination or particular political party? How many find synagogue spiritually meaningful? How many eat Jewish foods and share other aspects of Jewish culture with people who aren’t Jewish? The list of questions goes on. And anecdotally, I have often seen that when a rabbi meets a new colleague, one of the first questions asked is: “How many members are in your congregation?” The assumption is: the bigger the better. The more members you have in your community, the greater your rabbinic reputation.
Though the causes of the upheaval in Israel are incredibly complicated and nuanced, one of the main reasons for the tragic violence we are seeing this week comes down to a race for greater numbers. How many Jewish Israelis live in East Jerusalem, (in villages like Sheikh Jarrah, which is at the heart of the most recent controversy) versus how many Palestinians live there will likely determine who ultimately gets to control the Holy City. But this question of demography has been at the core of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for decades, with many wondering what will happen if Jews are no longer a majority in the Jewish State.
These questions about demographics, though, are not unique to Israel; they exist in the United States as well. The 2020 Census was wrapped up in the political question of whether to count undocumented immigrants. And the results, recently published, will have enormous implications for upcoming elections, as Colorado, Florida, Montana, North Carolina, Texas, and Oregon will each gain seats in the House of Representatives, while California, Illinois, Michigan, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia will each lose a seat.
Whenever we count a population — be it of a synagogue, a neighborhood, or a nation — perhaps the first step should be to determine why we are engaging in this project. Are we counting our people to achieve utilitarian and political ends or bragging rights? Or are we counting them for sacred purposes, in order to provide resources and ensure proper representation? The ideal end goal should be to ensure that everyone counts.