When we lived in Los Angeles, one of our favourite restaurants was called C&O. It was a very popular restaurant and it was always necessary to book in advance. The problem was that even with a booking, a party would not be seated until every single member of the group was present. We would worry about one particular friend who was invariably late and so risked our entire booking; even if every other person had arrived on time. I am sure there was some sensible business reason for this policy, but for me the message was, and is, that everybody counts.
The fourth book of the Torah begins with a similar message. God instructs Moses: ‘take a census of all the congregation of the people of Israel, by families, by the house of their fathers, according to the number of names, every male by their polls; From twenty years old and upwards’ (Numbers 1:2-3). We may struggle with the sexist nature of this census, excluding the women, or the purpose of it, which seems related to an ability to wage war (Numbers 1:3). However, as always we have to recognise the context (including its problems) and seek the lesson within it.
This is essentially the first instruction following the dedication of the Tabernacle. It was dedicated on the first day of the first month in the second year after the Exodus from Egypt (Exodus 40:17), and this command was given on the first day of the second month of the second year (Numbers 1:1). With the Tabernacle erected, and God dwelling in the midst of the Israelite community, the next task was to count the people.
In our modern Judaism the importance of each individual persists with the laws of minyan. Ten adult Jews are required in order that all of the prayers can be recited. With only nine people at a service there should technically be no Barechu, no Kedushah in the Amidah, and no Kaddish. Ten people are needed, and if a single one is missing the community is incomplete and unable to fulfil its complete religious function.
We may think that it is all a “game” of numbers, people are essentially tally marks to reach a minyan or count an army. But the Hebrew goes further; it specifically says bemispar shemot – with the number of names (Numbers 1:2). The census is not just about counting the adult males; it is also about recording their names. People are more than just numbers, there are names – each individual is significant and unique. When Abraham was originally blessed by God, the promise that he received was: ‘I will make your name great’ (Genesis 12:2). Having a name is an important piece of what makes us unique individuals.
The census is made up of names and numbers – and both elements are crucial in community. When I led an RSY-Netzer Israel Tour we would have the participants ‘number off’ each time we boarded the bus. Each person had their own number and they would call them out, in order, so that we knew everyone was present. If one number was missing, the count was broken and we recognised our community was incomplete and we could not proceed (thankfully we never lost anyone). To count, all numbers are needed – each one is important and necessary.
But at the same time people are not just numbers; a community is made up of unique individuals. Each person has a name and is more than just a number. We did not refer to our Israel Tour participants by their numbers; we knew them by their names, by their stories, interests and passions. It is the balance between the two, numbers and names, which creates community.
We must always remember that if one person is missing, or if one person is anonymous, our community is incomplete.