Do You Count?
There seems to be a contradiction at the beginning of this week’s parsha.
On one hand, the very first Rashi in Sefer Bamidbar says that acts of counting are expressions of love on the part of Hashem.
מתוך חיבתן לפניו מונה אותם כל שעה
Because they were dear to Him, He counted them often.
It seems that when Hashem initiates a census of His people at the beginning of this this week’s parsha, it is to show that He loves them.
On the other hand, the Torah is explicit in saying that taking a census of the nation is fraught with risk.
The beginning of parshas Ki Sisa (Shemos 30,12) says:
כִּי תִשָּׂא אֶת רֹאשׁ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לִפְקֻדֵיהֶם … וְלֹא יִהְיֶה בָהֶם נֶגֶף בִּפְקֹד אֹתָם.
When you count the heads of the children of Israel according to their numbers (let each one give to Hashem an atonement for his soul), then there will be no plague among them when they are counted.
Centuries later, when Dovid Hamelech counted the people, it ended in tragedy, and seventy thousand people died. (Shmuel Beis, perek 24). How can this be if counting is a gesture of love?
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (Lessons in Leadership p189) suggests the following answer. The key lies in the phrase the Torah uses to describe the act of counting.
שְׂאוּ אֶת רֹאשׁ כָּל עֲדַת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל
Count the heads of the congregation of the children of Israel.
Literally, the phrase used is “lift the head”. As Rabbi Sacks notes, this is strange given the many more common words used to mean count – למנות, לפקוד, לספור, לחשוב.
The point is that in any census or roll call, there is a tendency to focus on the total. This is a nation of seventy million people, a sports crowd of eighty thousand people, a company with fifteen thousand employees.
The number itself tends to value the group. The larger the total, the stronger the army, the more popular the team, the more successful the company.
The trouble is that the counting devalues the individual. They become just a number and replaceable. If a soldier dies, someone else will take his place. If someone leaves the organisation, someone else can be hired to do his or her job.
Hashem specifically uses the expression שְׂאוּ אֶת רֹאשׁ (lift the head) to convey the idea that each individual is significant. Everyone counts. A census must be done in a way that signals we are valued as individuals.
This is an important message to anyone in leadership. At Hasmonean, we try to respect our students and “lift their heads”. This is true not just in relation to our students but for our colleagues too.
Counting is only fitting if people’s heads are lifted, and that is achieved by showing that they count.