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Sophie Factor - 5/22/2020

This week was parsha Bamidbar. It’s the first parsha in the last book of the Torah, which in English is called Numbers. This name makes sense as throughout Bamidbar several censuses are taken of the Hebrews while they are wandering in the desert. This is the first one. God tells the Hebrews to count “all of his people” (except the Levites, who will be counted later on and with different parameters). The people who are counted are the able-bodied men over 20 in each tribe.

There are many ways at which to look at this first counting of the Hebrews. Rashi says “because they were dear to Him, He counted them often.” Rashi is stating that the constant counting throughout Bamidbar is a way that God shows his love for the Hebrews – the same way a camp counselor constantly counts their campers throughout the day of a field trip. God is making sure that nobody is getting lost, which is a feeling many of us can relate to. There are, however, some questions that come to mind when we take a more modern-day look at this passage.

Some questions that came to mind for me were “why did they only include the specific people they did in the census?” and “If God said ‘his people’ were to be counted what does it mean for the women, children, and disabled people who weren’t counted?” One reasoning that came up in my research of the commentary of this parsha was that the purpose of this census was to determine the military might of the Hebrew tribes. Practically, they needed to know the count of able-bodied men of the tribes (besides the Levites, who wouldn’t fight in battle) for strategic purposes. Another reason I found was that while God said to count everyone, the interpretation of the census takers was to count only the men as was typical of the time. The exclusion was at the hands of people instead of at the hands of Gods. Both of these reasons are fine but don’t leave me feeling fully satisfied – if the Torah is God’s word, shouldn’t it be more precise? Would God exclude people on purpose? 

I find this portion both troubling and highly applicable today. First of all this year is a census year in the United States, and as we’ve seen how we count people in America really really matters: voting, electoral representation, allocation of public resources, even coronavirus cases and treatments are all deeply affected by this counting. Throughout the years, the way that the census has categorized people in terms of race and gender has also changed and affected their lives deeply. The United States census is and will continue to be a deeply debated topic. 

Another way counting is extremely relevant is by making sure that we as individuals are counted, by making sure our voices are heard. We can think of voting as an act of census – by actively voting in an election you say “count me in,” and ensure your voice and opinion are counted. As college students, we can vote for student government, voice our opinions to the college, etc. More specifically, counting occurs at Hillel as well. We know that the decision to count people inevitably leads for some people to NOT be counted. We don’t want a legacy of exclusion at Hillel. As incoming Shabbat shair, making Hillel an inclusive place is of high priority for me. Shabbat should be a time where all are welcome and everyone feels counted in our community. So for me, the takeaway is that I want to ensure our community feels counted and heard at Shabbat this upcoming year. More generally, I want to ask you all: who can you consciously make sure to count in, and how can you actively make sure you yourself are counted when it matters? 

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