Dvar Torah given at Kehilat Hadar Shavuot Retreat May 19, 2018
Parashat Bamidbar deals with counting the people. And oftentimes, this section is glossed over because counting and lists are boring. / Obviously, the Torah thinks there’s something of interest here, as do I, which is why I’m bringing it up. Looking at the relevent verses:
שְׂא֗וּ אֶת־רֹאשׁ֙ כָּל־עֲדַ֣ת בְּנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל לְמִשְׁפְּחֹתָ֖ם לְבֵ֣ית אֲבֹתָ֑ם
בְּמִסְפַּ֣ר שֵׁמ֔וֹת כָּל־זָכָ֖ר לְגֻלְגְּלֹתָֽם׃
מִבֶּ֨ן עֶשְׂרִ֤ים שָׁנָה֙ וָמַ֔עְלָה כָּל־יֹצֵ֥א צָבָ֖א בְּיִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל
תִּפְקְד֥וּ אֹתָ֛ם לְצִבְאֹתָ֖ם אַתָּ֥ה וְאַהֲרֹֽן׃
Take a census of the whole Israelite community by the clans of its ancestral houses, listing the names, every male, head by head. You and Aaron shall record them by their groups, from the age of twenty years up,
all those in Israel who are able to bear arms. (Bamidbar 1:2-3)
The stated purpose of this census was to account for military service and, a number of modern commentaries suggest that it was possibly also to account for any taxes on persons or property.
Planning for war, estimating tax revenue are very bureaucratic, if necessary, reasons for counting but the midrash gives us an alternative perspective:
Bamidbar Rabba (4:2) compares the counting of people in our parashah to a vendor in the market counting each pearl in the bundle both when she takes them out, and when she puts them away. The implication is clear, that counting implies our valuing of certain items in this case pearls and in the case of our parshah, people.
There’s a side of me that’s resentful of this midrash for assigning value to those counted in Bamidbar while leaving out those under 20, those too old to bear arms AND anyone not male. As a matter of fact, who is counted and who is not counted, and under what label is a problem that continues to this day. As the US gears up for another census in 2020, questions along the same lines are being asked and their implications hopefully considered and addressed.
And while acknowledging both the limitations of the midrash and the political implications of the US census, I still think ALL of us can relate to counting things that are important.
Some examples that come to mind include counting likes, or followers. Some of us derive our personal value or our professional success by counting clicks and comments. Others may count by dollars or credentials or days or weeks until an important milestone. You get the idea.
And though it’s easier to judge others for what they count, take a moment to think seriously about what you do find important enough to count.
Think about why you find it so important and about how counting helps to reinforce the centrality of whatever it is that is so important.
As it happens, we’re coming up on the end of a ritualized counting:
וּסְפַרְתֶּ֤ם לָכֶם֙ מִמָּחֳרַ֣ת הַשַּׁבָּ֔ת מִיּוֹם֙ הֲבִ֣יאֲכֶ֔ם אֶת־עֹ֖מֶר הַתְּנוּפָ֑ה
שֶׁ֥בַע שַׁבָּת֖וֹת תְּמִימֹ֥ת תִּהְיֶֽינָה׃ עַ֣ד מִֽמָּחֳרַ֤ת הַשַּׁבָּת֙ הַשְּׁבִיעִ֔ת תִּסְפְּר֖וּ חֲמִשִּׁ֣ים י֑וֹם;
And from the day on which you bring the sheaf of elevation offering—the day after the sabbath—you shall count off seven weeks. They must be complete: you must count until the day after the seventh week—fifty days; (Leviticus 23:15-16)
The Bechor Shor has a lengthy commentary on this biblical command to count the Omer. He notes that the initial counting was in anticipation of receiving the Torah for the first time. But “The Holy Blessed One commanded the Israelites to count annually to make the Torah dear to them.”
Counting the Omer is anticipatory, it psyches us up to experience revelation which is what brings us here to the Shavuot retreat.
Ready or not, shavuot starts tonight and tomorrow morning is the day we reenact revelation. I say the word reenact deliberately. We are not meant to be passive recipients of Torah. The custom of staying up studying and preparing is meant to help us be in the right mindset for hearing the 10 commandments read tomorrow as if we are hearing them anew. Having tefilot tomorrow correspond with sunrise demonstrates our enthusiasm to have this encounter with the Divine happen as soon as possible.
Whether we were counting the Omer, or counting days until we could be back here, together with our Kehilat Hadar community, here we are, and matan torah is tomorrow.
As we arrive at the end of our period of counting, as we prepare to receive Torah, where does that leave us? How can we make the most of this last day before shavuot?
And as we mark this time of revelation perhaps we can also assess both on a communal level, and on a personal one what else we count, and why we count it.
May tomorrow bring us renewal in our relationship with Torah and an opportunity to reassess our priorities so that we can make sure that we spend our time and efforts where it counts the most.