We cannot be counted

Weighing the importance of the individual against something even more important – the community. 

Rabbi Dr. Eliyahu Safran

Judaism The 'Million Dollar' shekel
The 'Million Dollar' shekel
צילום: INN:RS

And the children of Israel shall be as the sand of the sea, which will be neither measured nor counted. (Hosea 2:1)

The Talmud (Yoma 22b) teaches us that Jews may only be counted in the fulfillment of a mitzvah.  Therefore, King David was harshly punished for ordering a census, “so that I may know the number of the people” (Shmuel II 24:2) but not when doing so for waging a required war.  (Shmuel II 18:1)   

Our modern world, in which the individual is elevated above all else, might see in this prohibition a lesson against reducing each Jew to a mere cipher.  But could that possibly be the message here? After all, we know Judaism holds that everyone is a world unto himself; that all of creation was for the benefit of each of us.  We are taught that killing one individual is tantamount to destroying the entire world, and saving one individual is as saving the entire world.  

The individual is paramount… and yet… and yet in Hosea’s words we are being asked to reconcile a profound truth, one that seems, on a cursory reading, to run counter to the census taken at the outset of Bamidbar.  

In Shemot (30:12) we are taught that the Israelites are to give a half a shekel, and not be counted, lest “there will be a negef (plague) among them”.  A plague?  What is happening here?

Commenting on the verse, Rashi weighs the importance of the individual against something even more important – the community.  He says that “in counting sholet bo ayin ha’ra – the evil eye takes hold”.  If an individual chooses to “stand on his own” without regard to his community, there is a good chance that he be stricken by the ayin ha’ra, that he may not possess enough merit or zchus to truly stand on his own.  In other words, there are times when we should want to be just one among the many.  

The Panim Yafot elaborates that when Jews are unified as one community they are connected to God and therefore need no additional protection.  But when we stand as individuals? When we are subject to individual scrutiny? Do any of us want to take the chance of standing before God on our own?  That is the intent of God telling Moshe that when he counts the people it needs be by their bringing a half a shekel, “every man shall give Hashem an atonement for his soul”.  There is power and strength in being one with the total community, where individual merits are merged in a synergy that makes the whole greater than the sum of its parts.  

It is in the synergy of the community, of the tzibur, that we find the reason why we daven in a quorum, with a tzibur.  It is the reason we pray in the plural.  We want – need – to be part of the whole.  

Rav Soloveitchik understood the importance of the individual – we need the one, and the two and the three – each required for our tzibur and our ability to recite borechu, kaddish, kedusha.  These essential prayers are considered “davar sh’bkedusha”.  We need the tzibur to bring them before God. 

Nine individuals? No tzibur, no community to stand before God.  Individuals are vital – one simple yiddele can make or break a tzibur.  Even so, Rabbi Soloveitchik understood the limits of individuality.  In his profound Kol Dodi Dofek insights into the sufferings of Job, Rabbi Soloveitchik taught that “…prayer is the province of the community.”  He passionately argued that Jewish prayer is, “the linking of one soul to another and the fusing of tempestuous hearts.” …” you must understand the idea of loving-kindness, which is realized by the one who prays and who is elevated from a personal self-concern to becoming one with the community.”  Job’s “sin” and the root of his suffering was in his separation from the community.  

Bamidbar, “Numbers”, opens with the detailed census of B’nai Yisrael in the desert, following the erection of the Mishkan.  Ramban offers three reasons for the count.  One, God loves His children and frequently seeks their count. Two, every Jew deserved the personal attention of Moshe and Aaron. And three, in anticipation of their entry into Eretz Yisrael (had they not sinned with the meraglim), and the need to determine military readiness and who would receive a portion of the land.  

So then, we count.  Straightforward enough.   One, two, three… But wait!  They cannot be counted in this manner.  It is forbidden. This is the reason that the census was accomplished by counting half-shekels, not individuals.

In Shmuel I, King Shaul counted his men b’telaim.  The simple reading would suggest the place where the counting took place.  However, Chazal understood telaim literally, “by lambs”.  That is, Shaul counted one lamb in place of each man, one for one.

 In our own time – when we lack the opportunity to contribute half a shekel or join David’s army – we still face the challenge of counting.  When we come to shul and the minyan is tight, when it’s getting late and we need a tzibur we are likewise forbidden to count those present to make sure we number ten.  Some, therefore, count “not one, not two…Others, allow counting in one’s mind, not audibly.  However, there are those who ascertain the presence of a minyan by reciting the verse, Hoshiah et amecha u’varech et nachalatecha u’rem v’nase’em ad ha’olam.  Ten beautiful words, “Save Your people and bless Your inheritance, and tend them and elevate them forever.” 

We do not count the individuals gathering.  When we think there are ten, we recite this posuk, and if we get to the end, we know ten are present.  

Which brings us to Devarim.  Moshe is about to take his leave from the world and from the nation he has led.  He reviews their shared experiences and delivers his last will and testament.  Moshe reminds the people that he told them, “I cannot carry you alone… Hashem, your God, has multiplied you and behold you are like the stars of heaven in abundance.” (Devarim 1:10) 

The Midrash (Devarim Rabah 1:9) teaches this is what it says (zeh sh’amar ha’katuv), that Moshe’s words, Hashem elokeichen hirba etchem, are directly connected to Tehilim 5, eshtachaveh el heichal kodshecha b’yiratecha – I will bow down to Your holy Temple in awe of You.

My grandfather, Rav Bezalel Zev Shafran ZT’L was puzzled over the Midrash’s intent here.  What, he wondered, was the connection between “Hashem multiplied your number” and “I will bow down...”?  Then he discovered a citation in Rashi’s “Sefer HaOra” in which the sage discussed a case of those who came to shul and needed to ascertain whether they had ten Jews for the minyan (as above!) 

Rashi wrote that they could not simply count the individual Jews, even for a mitzvah.  So, what were they to do?  Recite this posuk from Psalms! The first word, Vani.  The second, b’rov. The third, chasdecha. The fourth, avoh. The fifth, beisecha, plus the last five words eshtachaveh el eichal kodshecha b’yiratecha until they completed the verse.  They would then know whether they had ten Jews.  Again, a ten-word posuk when recited enabled them to know when they had a minyan, a tzibur.   

The chachmei ha’midrash were still troubled by the posuk in Devarim, Hashem elokeichem hirba etchem.  If it is forbidden to count individual Jews even for a mitzvah, how did He count them to ascertain their number?  The midrash therefore concludes, “…zeh sh’amar ha’katuv, eshtachaveh el eichal kodshecha”.  This, my grandfather concludes, is the relationship of our Devarim posuk, to teach that they were counted in accordance with the ten words of this well-known posuk.  

This verse from Psalms is recited each morning after the initial words of Ma Tovu, as we enter the shul, seeking to stand before God as part of a tzibur.   Ma Tovu is, therefore, our entre to our public prayer - our joining with the whole, our engaging in the profound synergy of the whole.  On my own, I am vulnerable. With the community, I am strong. With the individual “me” joining with all the other individual “me’s”, the community is stronger than the sum of our number.  

Our tzibur is uncountable.

Rabbi Safran’s “Something Old, Something New – Pearls from the Torah” available on Amazon Pearls from the Torah: Something Old, Something New: Eliyahu Safran: 9781602803152: Amazon.com: Books