We count. We count our age, we count our work hours, we count our money, we count the minutes of our workout, we count our meals... as humans, we count. In this way, we are searching for structure and routine.
Numbers (as the book’s name suggests) maintains a theme of counting. The book opens in this week’s parsha with God’s instructions to the Israelites to “take a census of the entire assembly of the Children of Israel...” (Numbers 1:2). Yet, despite the order that census usually brings, the book of Numbers — Bamidbar in Hebrew, which translates to “in the wilderness”— is a chaotic and transitional time for the Jewish people. Shulamith Hareven, an Israeli writer, suggests that in Badmibar “there was only the desert...They moved from place to place in the desert, hopping back and forth among its few springs, from tamarisk to zyzyph tree, their comings and goings pointless apart from the needs of their flocks...” (Shulamith Hareven, Thirst: The Desert Triology [San Francisco: Mercury House, 1996], 15, 19]. The opening of Numbers evokes a sense of uncertainty and by taking a census — by counting — the Israelites attempt to create order.
Just as Moses and Aaron are instructed to count the members of their community (Numbers 1:3), in our work as Hillel professionals, we count students: how many students came to this or that event? How many students attended Shabbat dinner? How many students are in our databases? But counting alone does not achieve the essence of our work. In order to further the Jewish journeys of the students with whom we work, we cannot simply count heads, rather we must count individuals.
In taking a census, the Israelite leaders were asked to consider the diversity of people who made up their community. With each individual, they paused, acknowledging that each person contributed to the sum total of the group. When we count, we are not only aggregating, but we are recognizing each unique individual. By counting, by taking a census, we are creating a community.
Furthermore, counting can go beyond the task of adding tangible objects (work hours, money, meals, people, etc.). Counting is a form of taking inventory of things that are worth cataloging; it is a way of organizing meaning. As my one-year fellowship at Hillel’s Charles and Lynn Schusterman International Center comes to an end this month, I have no trouble relating to this week’s parsha. In this time of transition, I am reflecting on my past year and preparing myself for the next step, both personally and professionally. In this process, I am considering what counts: with whom will I stay in contact? Which newly developed professional skills will I carry with me? What have I learned about myself this past year? And how will this knowledge shape who I will become in the coming year? By contemplating these questions, I am considering what counts.
This is a time of year when we are all in transition. In the Jewish calendar, we are counting the days of the omer, transitioning from Pesach to Shavuot. And in the secular, Gregorian calendar, we are wrapping up the school year, transitioning to summer weather and summer hours as we prepare for the new academic year. In this time of transition, we take a step back and take note of what we have accomplished in the past year and what we hope to accomplish in the coming year. We search for measurable ways to allow us to articulate our accomplishments and, in this vein, we count in an attempt to create order and meaning.
Prepared by Anna Schuettge, Hochberg Fellow for the Joseph Meyerhoff Center for Jewish Learning at the Schusterman International Center.
To read additional articles and commentaries on Parshat Bamidbar go to MyJewishLearning.com.