At the moment we are conducting a survey of our West London Synagogue young adults so that we can try to gain some insight into how successful our programme of events has been (so far the results do look good). I have been told that there is a magic number we need to aspire to, which will give us a significant enough sample group to make some statements based on our results. The survey is anonymous, and so all I can look at is numbers on the screen. Each person is a number. I know their gender, year of birth and a variety of other facts about their religious upbringing and their Jewish involvement, but I do not know who they are. In replacing names with numbers an element of each person’s identity is lost.
In reflecting on people becoming numbers the song from Les Miserables comes to mind as Javert and Jean Valjean sing against each other. For those of you who are not familiar with the musical, Jean Valjean was a prisoner who escaped and Javert is the man who has taken on the task of finding him. As they sing together Javert keeps asserting the Jean Valjean should be known by his number 24601, suggesting that he is unworthy of having a name, remaining an eternal prisoner in his eyes. In contrast Jean Valjean asserts his name rather than accepting the label of a number. In this way, when we think of people as numbers it is often in situations where people are imprisoned or considered unworthy of having a name.
This week’s Torah portion is all about numbers (hence the English name of this Biblical book) as Moses and Aaron conduct the census. God’s initial instruction to Moses was: ‘Take a census of the whole Israelite company by the clans of its ancestral houses, listing the names, every male, head by head’ (Numbers 1:2). While the instruction requires the listing of names, the names are not given and instead we receive a set of numbers.
After going through the numbers of each tribe we read the conclusion: ‘All the Israelite males, aged twenty years and over, enrolled by ancestral houses, all those in Israel who were able to bear arms – all who were enrolled came to 603,550’ (Numbers 1:45-46). Considering this only accounts for the adult males, one can only imagine how many Israelites actually left Egypt, and what their caravan must have looked like as they journeyed through the wilderness.
While we may feel uneasy with the idea of recording people as numbers rather than by their names, there is an equality which comes from the process of the census. Apart from tribal affiliation there is no distinction made between any of the men who were counted. We know nothing of them as individuals, there is no distinction between rich or poor, powerful or weak; they are all Israelite men.
What is also significant is the fact that each man counts and is counted.