Making Sure Each Person Counts — and Is Counted


The Vilna Gaon reminds us that one who gives today may receive tomorrow — or, in our vernacular, “what goes around, comes around.”

Exodus 30:11-34:35
When I served as an Army Chaplain Candidate at Fort Benning, Ga., it was home to a basic training unit for new soldiers and the elite Ranger training school. I found out pretty quickly that the Army is a special community that took care of one another, no matter what. I was a witness to how each person needed to do his or her job. In most cases, people went above and beyond to help another, even if they did not know each other.
I found out about this philosophy firsthand. I had almost completed my training that summer when I ended up in the hospital with appendicitis. Both before and after the surgery, several people came to visit me to offer me comfort and help for that short period of time. I was reminded of the camaraderie and teamwork that is so important to the military — and to a community — when I recently saw a video of a squad of soldiers who were tasked with climbing a wall about 10 feet high. Without missing a beat, two soldiers offered the next in line a lift up the wall. In turn, the soldiers on the top pulled their mates up, and the last soldier on the ground took a running leap up the wall so that the other soldiers caught him and pulled him to the top.
Long before that group of soldiers could climb that wall successfully, each needed to stand up and be counted. Once counted, they could explore each other’s strengths needed to accomplish the task. This week in our Torah portion, God says to Moshe, “Ki Tissah et rosh b’nei Yisrael l’fkudaihem V’natnu eesh kofer nafsho l’Adonai,” or “When you take a census of the Israelite people according to their enrollment, each shall pay the Lord a ransom for himself on being enrolled.” So first, this verse contains the word ‘v’natnu,” a Hebrew palindrome, meaning that the word is spelled the same from right to left and from left to right. The Vilna Gaon reminds us that one who gives today may receive tomorrow — or, in our vernacular, “what goes around, comes around.” When we give to others, very often it is returned to us and we are strengthened, most especially when we find a way to work together.
We learn that the Israelites were commanded to give a half shekel for the census so Moshe would not have to count individuals but would rather count the contributions instead. Our Sages teach that when the Israelites counted, it was as if they were “raising the head” of each person counted. In raising their heads, we do not want to ignore their personal strengths or what they contribute to the community. Accordingly, Moshe counted the half shekels, not the individuals: The coins were all the same; the people were each different. As is taught in Iturei Torah, “When one counts the Jews and organizes them into a unified community, they are raised up and exalted. An individual who does not associate himself with the community has little value and no influence upon life. But when an individual associates with the community, he becomes a part of it. That is why the Torah refers to counting as ‘raising the head.’ ” Just as the soldiers lent a helping hand to one another to raise themselves up over the wall, when we reach out to others, we raise their heads up high and create a more sacred and blessed community.
Rabbi Aaron Gaber is the spiritual leader of Congregation Brothers of Israel in Newtown. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent.


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