We Are More Than Just a Number

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In the Book of Numbers, which we begin reading this Sabbath, Moses promotes feelings of self-worth by requiring that the population census identify each person by a name rather than a number.

The Greek title for the Book of Numbers is Arithmoi — akin to arithmetic — which refers to the several census-takings found in this book. The purpose of the census and the method of taking it yield some important lessons.
 
Nachmanides, the 13th century commentator, wrote that since we don’t rely on miracles to get our tasks accomplished, the Israelites couldn’t rely on a divine miracle to have the Promised Land handed to them. The Hebrew name for the book of Numbers is Bemidbar, which means “in the wilderness,” another way of saying “undeveloped, unorganized.” The Israelites needed organization and coordination of activities to make the journey from wilderness to Promised Land. 
 
How the census was taken was crucial for success. Here’s what happens when we call a bank, a credit card company or a brokerage. The customer service representative answers the phone: “Hello, how may I help you?” You: “Do you want my name or my account number?” Don’t we all feel that our identity has been diminished when we are first an account number?
 
The renowned 20th century biblical scholar, Nechama Leibowitz, believed that a great danger in modern society is that large corporations think of us merely as numbers. If one of us stops being a customer, the corporate thinking goes, there is always another to take our place. For the census that God ordered Moses to take, the name of each male age 20 and over was recorded. This procedure was necessary for military purposes. But Nachmanides took the purpose of the census to a higher level.
 
According to him, Moses did not just call for a faceless numbering. Moses instructed the poll takers to count heads “in a manner that will give honor and importance to each person.” Nachmanides commented that Moses told the poll takers, “Do not ask the head of each family for the number of people in the family.  Rather, invite each person to pass before me. Take down the person’s name, and let each one feel honored to be part of the census.”
 
Moses promoted the feeling of self-worth by wanting to know the name of each person. It makes a person feel valued and honored when he or she is known and called by name. We all harbor an inner wish to be recognized by others. In social settings, people feel ill at ease in a group where they are not known and often do not feel welcomed.
 
Synagogues and other Jewish institutions need to be places where members feel attached to the community because they have formed meaningful relationships and are known by name and the circumstances of their lives.
 
Another reason why Moses wanted to know every individual is that as the leader, he needed to identify individual talents and abilities. Moses’ job was to lead the Israelites through the hardships of the wilderness. He had to know who was able to get certain tasks done. In any organization, there has to be a delegation of tasks. The leader shows his ability to lead by calling upon a person with a particular talent to carry out a particular function.
 
In this book of the Torah that we begin reading this Sabbath,  everyone is counted and identified by a name and not by a number. But just as importantly, as Moses knew, everyone has to be counted on to carry some weight, to be reliable and dependable.
 
Rabbi Fred V. Davidow is the chaplain at Glendale Uptown Home. Email him at: RabbiFVD@aol.com.
 

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