When my daughter Corey was 5 years old, she was a bright, but precocious, child. I was in seminary and living in an apartment complex with several other seminarians. We used to carpool to our campus, but had to drop Corey off at her school, on the way. One morning she asked one of my colleagues if she could count to 100 for him. She was so proud of herself, but not having had children yet, he did not understand the vicarious joy of watching children grow. He said, “No.” I gave him the look that says, “You had better rethink that answer or we are in trouble.” He added, “If you can spell “chiropractor,” you can count for me. A strained silence fell over the car for the rest of the trip. That night, we worked hard on helping her spell the word. In the morning, she got in the car and launched into the perfect spelling. My friend looked at me. I glared back at him. Corey commenced counting all the way to 100.
Counting is an important skill. We use it in every phase of our life. We count belongings, blessings (I hope), friends, miles traveled, and a host of other things in our everyday world. The problem we face is that too often, we get more engrossed in quantifying than we do in the value of the subject matter of the counting. Numbers are helpful tools, but in reality they are irrelevant. Two plus two equals four is not really helpful unless you know “four what?” According to Torah, there were over 600,000 people counted in the census in this week’s Torah portion. That may seem like a lot of people, until one realizes that this is only a piece of a much larger number; the men who were capable of battle, and did not include the rest of the men, women or children. Knowing that the only numbers that mattered are the counts of those who could carry a weapon strikes me as a difficult standard when describing a people commanded to seek peace and pursue it. Even if we are talking about only those capable of mounting a military defense, it still seems odd that we count only the warriors. Even if one reads the number as 76,000 (an answer offered in the Talmud), that is whole bunch of people counted for their fighting capabilities and not their peaceful qualities or intentions.
Herein lies the difficulty of proof-texting and being too literal with the text. The rest of the story tells us that the total people had to be around 2.5 million (alternatively 250,000). Even while the number of those of warrior status is vast, we are told in Deuteronomy that many are disqualified from service. Either they have not built homes for their families, they oppose war, or they are new spouses or parents. Even those who might engage in war have to first avoid damaging fruit trees, have to give the members of the opposing society the option to walk away unharmed if they do not want to fight, have to, for the sake of peace, be prepared to turn their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Thus, it is important to single out those who would be turning from soldiers of war with weapons to soldiers of peace with instruments of cultivation. Given the command to pursue peace, this will then become the largest army for peace known to humanity. Numbers are important, but knowing what they represent is everything. This is, of course, when my wife reminds me that women already knew better.
Even still, there is a huge identifiable disconnect between the impressive number of peacenicks, and what it takes to create that size of an army. Armies are made up of soldiers, each with his/her own personality and beliefs. The sci-fi depiction of massively created robotic armies is a metaphor that might apply to boot camp ideology, but it can never describe how each individual soldier will respond in any given situation. In common conversation about the text, there does not seem to be any room for a discussion about the individuals that make up the whole, but without the personal commitment of each soldier, we can never hope to accomplish very much… even with 600,000 people. Implicit in this counting process, we need to remember that each person we include in the tally is an army of one. At Havdalah (the ceremony that ends the Sabbath each week), we use a candle made of many wicked candles braided into one. We remind each other that light is a gift and a source of energy. Each of us has the ability to do a lot of good work and when we pool our resources (as the candle gathers the many wicks together) our ability to bring light multiplies manifold. So, when I read this Torah text and see that number, I am less moved by the tribal organization than I am hopeful that there really is a great resource pool from which to draw to get good work done. I also have to remember how easy it is to take people in a group for granted, because they are part of the group.
Each person has a unique take on how to view the world around us and a unique skill set that can help us meet a variety of challenges. For Corey, at the age of 5, it was the determination to be counted (to know that her skills mattered). She had a goal in mind, and met the challenge given her in order to accomplish the goal. What a great paradigm as we work alongside each other. We give each other opportunities to grow and shine, and then, even while operating in a larger mix of people, we still are individuals who shine. When Corey finished counting, the whole car was proud of her, and we all grew a little that day. What if we all responded to each other this way? I find it amazing how much we can learn from our children. Even when all we are doing is counting. Everyone counts. Shabbat Shalom.
Rabbi Marc Aaron Kline serves the Temple Adath Israel. Ordained in 1995 from Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion, he earned a B.A. from Tulane University, a J.D. from the University of Arkansas, and a Masters from Hebrew Union College. He has taught ethics, philosophy, religion and government in high schools, college and graduate schools and regularly runs a diverse adult education program. He has served as chair of the LFCUG Human Rights Commission and is very active in the greater community.
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