Remember the Ronald Reagan-Walter Mondale presidential debates? There had been much speculation about the president's age – after all, 73 was a ripe age to start another term in a demanding job. But Reagan, with characteristic charm, disarmed his critics, and did so with precision.
When confronted with the "number" thing, Reagan said, "I am not going to exploit, for political reasons, my opponents relative youth and inexperience." I suppose it's true: Sometimes a number is just a number – how you count is what matters.
In the Book of B'midbar, a population census was taken. Again this week, we start with an enumeration of the priestly families. In rabbinic literature, this fourth Mosaic book is referred to as, chumash hapikudim, the book of counting.
You will more readily recognize its overarching title as the Book of Numbers. Allow me to share some of the richness of the Hebrew lexicon and, in turn, we will garner an essential truth about the Hebrew people.
There are several words for counting in Hebrew. For example, lachashov, limnot, lifkod and lispore. But the one that the Torah chooses regarding a census is also the one that gives the title to the Torah portion, nasoh. Recall back to the global census in the previous parshah, the same verb was employed. Why this word? "Nasoh" really means "to lift up." Why, then, when counting the Jewish people, is this the more appropriate verb?
Because when the Jewish people are counted, their quantitative number is not going to be large – never was, never will be. Living in a world where demographic density drives an election, where a population survey can fashion a people's self-image, and where population studies can, and often do, fashion our communal agenda – perhaps even becoming our communal pathology – one could easily become disheartened.
After all, if size does matter, if there is strength in numbers, then the Jewish people are weak. We are less than one quarter of one percent of the world's population. And yet …
"The Jewish contribution to the world is extravagantly out of proportion to the bulk of his size," observes Mark Twain. "He is as prominent on the planet as any other people. His contributions to the world's list of great names … are also way out of proportion to the weakness of his numbers."
The Torah and tradition are making it clear. You were, as S.Y. Agnon writes, "present at Sinai." You were, as our sages expounded, "standing under Sinai."
And you must be, as Judith Plaskow writes, "standing again at Sinai." You have deep and resonating standing in the world -intellectually, morally and spiritually, because you stood at Sinai. Your power does not emanate from numbers, but from a special purpose. It is not the bulk of your size that will be influential, but rather, it is the ennoblement of your spirit; it's not the largeness of your census, but the largesse of your soul.
The writer Milton Himmelfarb once remarked, "The number of Jews in the world is smaller than a statistical error in the Chinese census. Yet we remain bigger than our numbers. Big things seem to happen around and to us."
The eminent non-Jewish historian, Paul Johnson, has said this about the Jews: "To them we owe the idea of equality before the law, both divine and human; of the sanctity of life and the dignity of the human person; of the individual conscience and so of personal redemption; of the collective conscience and so of social responsibility; of peace as an ideal and love as the foundation of justice."
Not bad for a people who are a statistical error. Indeed, sometimes numbers are just numbers – it's how and what you count that matters.
Rabbi David Gutterman is executive director of the Vaad: Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia.