Wednesday, May 20, 2009

To Count, or Not to Count?

The minchah minyan at work asked me to give a short dvar Torah this week, and I thought I would share it with you.
Parshat BaMidbar is not exactly an action filled Parshah - it almost exclusively consists of numbers. And not even interesting numbers like 7, 40, or 613. It is full of the numbers of the population of Jews in each shevet - are those cyber-snores that I hear? Chas v'sholom that an entire Parshah in the Torah could be called boring, allow me to enlighten you to the deeper meaning of counting.
How does one perform a Biblical census? It is assur to go out and simply count every Jew. Rather the population was counted passively with the מחצית השקל. (Everyone had to pay an annual half-shekel tax. So if you halved the total tax collected, you would have the total population of the Jewish people.) Why is it assur to count every individual Jew?
A couple of years ago in my prior incarnation as a teacher, I attended a seminar that focused on Holocaust education. One of the speakers mentioned her strong dislike for the documentary, "Paper Clips." The documentary focuses on a school in Tenessee that collected 6 million paperclips to commemorate the Holocaust. The speaker objected to the idea that her grandmother could be compared to a paperclip. The same idea can be applied to the counting in Parshat BaMidbar - every Jew is a unique individual. An ordinary direct census removes that uniqueness and transforms a human being into a number. Thus it is assur to count people purely for the sake of determining the population. Instead, you may only calculate the population as a result of another action - like the מחצית השקל. As B'nei Israel begin their journey towards Eretz Yisrael, they have become one nation - yet it they are comprised of unique individuals.

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