Why Do We Count? It’s a Route to the Sacred



Ask students how many days are left in the school year, and they will probably be able to tell you the exact number. In fact, some students will even be able to tell you how many hours are left, or even how many English or algebra classes remain.

Somehow, knowing exactly how much school is left makes the journey more palatable. Ask young children how long it is until their birthdays arrive and they'll probably know that, too. (They will likely also be able to tell you what present they want.)

We human beings are simply obsessed with counting. We are driven by a desire to put everything into neat categories. We learn in high school what the species and genus are of every living creature that resides on the earth. Somehow, the massive world seems easier to deal with when it's broken down into component parts.

Judaism does the same thing. Our tradition seeks to divide the world up into digestible pieces so that we can elevate each to an appropriate level of holiness. We sanctify time by separating the year into months that have specific holidays, weeks marked by Shabbat, and days with designations for times to pray.

Our tradition requires us to apportion our money in order to make sure we put aside funds for charity. And our sages tell us to make sure to set aside time for the study of Torah.

When God created the world, it was an act of imposing order onto chaos. And as the Hebrew people began their formation into a nation, they, too, required an order that provided them with a sense of stability.

We know we are motivated by numbers. Athletes are measured by statistics. Scientists live by measurements, some surgeons by mortality rates and some lawyers by billable hours. We try our best to reduce everything to the numbers. It makes life simpler, more comprehensible.

But in some instances, such measurements can have criminal intent. When the Nazis tattooed the arms of our brothers and sisters in Germany, they were trying to reduce them all to just numbers.

My father used to say that we rush from place to place. When we set out on a journey, we try to find the fastest route possible to our destination. When my family members arrive at my home after just such a drive, I often ask how long it took them. When they answer any time shorter than what I expected, I respond, "You made good time." To which my father will respond, "Our job is not to make good time; our task is to make time good."

A person suffering in pain cannot measure relief. A person celebrating the birth of a child cannot measure joy. And yet, without the numeric, life's high points are difficult to remember and difficult to comprehend.

We count so that we can make order of our lives. When we decide appropriately how and what to count, it helps us make our lives sacred.

Rabbi Jay M. Stein is the religious leader of Har Zion Temple in Penn Valley.


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