This week’s Torah reading, Ki Tisa, starts with Israel learning how to conduct a census. It’s actually a far more nuanced thing than we first realize. The very nature of counting something reduces its essence to something that can be quantified by a number. When we count a thing, we objectify it, ignore anything that is unique or distinguishing about it, and relate to all things being counted as if they are they same. The only significance applied to counting something is the end number, the sum of the things. It’s clear why this process would be problematic to us when connected with people.
The second problem with counting people is one of tempting the ‘evil eye’. Jewish sensitivity about positive and negative forces in the universe goes back to our beginnings. Once we accept that there is spirituality in the world, it becomes difficult to draw a line saying spiritual forces only exist in some places but not others. Because we don’t really know, we err on the side of caution. To assign a final tally to counting people might draw a negative force to take notice of that large number and now play with it, bring negativity to it…reduce it. No mention of a number, no invitation or temptation for negativity, we have secured each other.
As much as that might sound out of place in our modern society, I’ve noticed people who never took such things seriously suddenly became aware of it once they have children. They err on the side of ‘just in case’.
All wonderful spiritual concepts to explore but on a practical level, how could we ever take a census?
God tells Moses to command everyone to give a coin, a half shekel. No one is allowed to deviate from that set coin amount —whether rich or poor, everyone must give the same. The coins are all collected and counted. We are not counting people, we are counting their donations. The amount collected would then be used to sustain and support those who work for the nation, the ones who facilitate ritual and leadership. In other words, we managed to take a census, collect a religious tax, support community workers, and everyone in the nation has given charity and fulfilled a mitzvah. Why be satisfied with a mere census when we can accomplish all of that instead?
Sometimes, we read something in Torah and feel it imposed on us, or it’s tying our hands —wouldn’t it be easier to just do what we want, directly and quickly. It’s moments like these when we realize that what might seem as a limitation could actually be a broader accomplishment that now sits firmly on our Jewish values. In a world of sound bites and instant response times, the Torah reminds us that taking shortcuts is not always our preferred process.
I’d like to wish everyone a sweet and peaceful Shabbat —our Jewish time to regroup, rest, and reinvigorate.