Parshat Ki Tisa: Don’t Count Me In

Parshat Ki Tisa: Don’t Count Me In

It’s very unusual, within the Jewish people, to find someone whose name has a number after it.  I mean, we won’t often meet someone named Moishe Cohen III (the third), or Moishe Cohen Jr, or Senior, since that would indicate they were the first or the second.  I can understand that the numbering of generations tradition never attached to women, since until recently, women would change their names when they married, and would then lose their named place in the lineage of their birth.  Putting aside that many women no longer change their names, it doesn’t answer why that tradition never began on the male side of Jewish families.

Part of the reason might be the evil eye.  In Ashkenazi traditions, you don’t name a baby after a living person in the family, especially someone elderly.  God forbid, the evil eye or an angel of misfortune is looking for the elderly person to demand recompense for a sin, but now mistakenly thinks the baby is that person because of the duplicated names.  No new parent wants to risk angelic confusion over names.  Not to mention that the evil eye may notice multiple generations existing within one family, and then (God forbid) turn its attention toward that family.  The only way to name a baby that way is to accept that every time you call that child you will have to spit, in order to ward off all evil forces.  Easier to head to the dead relatives.

We use our spiritually protective arsenal when we have to mention people and numbers.  We spit, we say ‘kinahora’ (Yiddish for ‘against the evil eye’) or ‘bli ayin harah’ (Hebrew for ‘without [inviting] an evil eye), or we quickly wipe our brow, palm out, so we’ve created a ‘hamsa’ (the protective symbol of the Hand of God)  — your choice.

In traditional minyanim, the person leading the service will not count the people to see if there are ten.  Instead, a particular Psalm verse is recited that contains ten words.  Each person in the room gets one word from the Psalm.  We need to know if there are ten people present but we won’t count them.

In my family, when a family meal is a buffet, all our folding chairs are opened and most of the dishes will come out.  Each person can help themselves and augment if needed.  For a sit down meal, the person setting the table assigns a name to each spot visually.  We try not to count people.

This cultural sensitivity about people and numbers then enters the category ‘once you’ve seen it, you can’t unsee it’.  Mentioning someone’s age, even  your own, could be inviting spiritual attention nobody wants. 

Years ago, I finished a public lecture and was approached with questions from the audience afterward.  These questions could sometimes become quite inappropriate, and I would always be caught off guard when that happened.  One time, someone asked me how old I was.  I hesitated for a moment, not because I’m embarrassed by my age, only because I have been asked to define myself by a number.  I answered that I was in my 40s and the man smiled and said “Oh, ok, I see, ‘in my 40s.’”  The rest of the evening I felt like finding that man and explaining that I’m happy to tell him my exact age, if he’s ok that I then spit toward him.  If that makes him uncomfortable, I’d be ok if he took upon himself the role of spitter as long as it didn’t direct toward me.  My husband said I was obsessing…

Why are we so sensitive about people and numbers?

We come by it quite honestly, since the Torah tells us not to count people.  In this week’s Torah portion, parshat Ki Tisa, the text begins by telling Moses that in order to take a census of the people, he must instruct everyone to bring half a shekel.  Gather the money, count the money and you’ll know how many people there are but don’t count the people themselves.  In fact, the verse continues by saying that we don’t count people “so that you won’t have a plague because you counted them.”  It’s not an insignificant statement.

Of course, the question would be why such a shocking warning about something that seems so minor?  A word like ‘plague’ is not a word to be trifled with.

The Torah itself never literally mentions an evil eye, so could there be another reason behind the prohibition?  Interestingly, there’s a word in Hebrew that repeats several times in this verse but doesn’t usually get translated accurately.  In English, the verse will read ‘when you take a census’ or ‘when you count’, but the word in Hebrew is ‘pakad’, which means ‘remember’.  It is used repeatedly with our matriarchs when God ‘remembers’ their prayers and they conceive babies.  It is not understood as a memory issue, since God is not forgetful, it is mostly understood by the commentaries as ‘active memory’, meaning it moves higher in the list of attention and response.  It is used to express an elevation of the person and their uniqueness.

When we understand the meaning of ‘pakad’, we go back to our verse about the census, and now the meaning speaks to us.  God has told Moses to teach all of Israel that people are to be elevated in their uniqueness, and never reduced to numbers.  When we take away the individuality of a person, and we replace them with a number, nothing good can possibly result.  Expect a ‘plague’.

Jewish history has tragically taught us that one of the crucial steps that allow atrocities in our world is to dehumanize someone — take away a name and assign a number.  It’s not just about counting people, it only starts there.  Why would someone listening to me speak want to know how old I am?  It is my ideas I am expressing, not my age.  When we apply for a job, we are no longer allowed to ask how old someone is because discrimination by age is too easy.  An employer can assume that an older person is tired and won’t have the energy for a new job or may soon retire.  The assumption completely ignores that many retired people enter a renaissance period and reinvent themselves with the motivation and vigour needed for a new challenge.  Young people are thought of as naive or inexperienced, and won’t have yet developed a strong work ethic.  The assumption in this case is equally flawed.  

The Torah has clearly taught us that every person is a unique blend of Divine ingredients.  When we remember someone, we are to remember their personhood, their being — numbers should be reserved for math and science.  

In fact, even numbers speak of their own spirituality.  As Einstein once said: “When the math works, God is speaking.”  I think he was old when he said that.

Parshat Shemini: Who Knows 8 – I Thought I Did

This week’s Torah reading, parashat Shemini, delves into all the things that happen on the 8th day.  The only problem is, there is no 8th day. I mean, of course there’s an 8th day if we’re counting from day 1 and we just keep counting, but that’s not how the Torah taught us to do things.  The universe was created in 7 days. The world revolves around 7 days. When I get to number 7 I am supposed to start again at number 1 – so really the 8th day is actually day 1 of my second group.

In fact, everything in the Torah revolves around 7 for groupings.  Now that Passover is finished, we are counting the Omer, the time between Passover and Shavuot.  We are told to count these days in groups of 7: seven weeks filled with 7 days each. We count the Omer by citing which week it is and which day, always aware of how the number 7 is framing our count.  We are counting up to Shavuot, we add in our counting. In Judaism we never count down to things, we always count up to them. Counting down has a sense of doom as we near the deadline (who thought up these terms?). When we count down we have a sense of dread but when we count up we have a sense of anticipation.

I recently asked an engineer why space shuttle launches count down with the phrase ‘T minus 10 seconds, T minus 9 seconds…’ etc.  I was told that T stands for the Time variable and therefore the time variable is set to 10 and the countdown will now reference that variable with the subtraction of 1 second each time.  I asked why they don’t just count down without the ‘T’, like the ball in Times Square on New Year’s Eve. He blinked a few times and said he didn’t understand my question. However, he did tell me that after the launch they switch to T plus formulas.  But even there, the T refers to the deadline for launch and so the deadline becomes the constant reference point, the ‘zero’ – except we all know there is no such thing as zero, it’s a place holder (all our math teachers were correct, we just didn’t get it till we were older).  So everything counts toward and away from something that doesn’t really exist…and we’re all fine with that?

The most I can make sense of all of this is that our physical bodies move forward with a set rate of cellular decay.  Aging is a process of our cells breaking down, not building up. Maybe that’s why we naturally gravitate toward countdowns.

But Judaism speaks to our souls as well as our bodies.  Our souls grow in strength and expression, they count up.  

All of this brings me to how Jewish text teaches us of the numbers 7 and 8.  As I mentioned, 7 frames our week and frames our holidays. Here is how the number 7 stabilizes us:

  1. The world was created in 7 days
  2. The 1st verse of the Torah has 7 words
  3. We count the Omer in 7 groups of 7 days
  4. The Menorah in the Temple had 7 branches
  5. There are 7 Noahide laws guiding all of humanity
  6. There are 7 blessings for a bride and groom
  7. We mourn a loved one by sitting shiva for 7 days (the word shiva means 7)

The world was created in 7 days and we mourn a loved one for 7 days.  Life itself is framed with the number 7.

But then the Parshah says “And on the 8th day” and we are struck!  What 8th day?! And as we read further, we realize the 8th day contains irrational things.  It is the 8th day on which the Tabernacle is inaugurated, the place that embodies holy space that we created.  We take it with us as we move nomadically. It is a threshold of connection between the holy and the mundane, between the physical and the spiritual, between this world and another world.  It is the doorway to the irrational. But it doesn’t end there.

In this week’s parshah, Shemini (the 8th day), Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, offer foreign fire on the altar and are immediately killed.  We’re never quite sure what foreign fire is and we’re never quite sure what they intended because we’re all so stunned by their deaths. Ritual is supposed to be a safe place, holiness is supposed to be a haven and a relationship with God is supposed to be a protected space.  They entered all of that and were killed. We will never figure out what it all means because it will simply never make sense. It is irrational and we live with it because we have no choice.  

In the parshah we are also told of the laws of kosher animals and fish.  Again, try explaining rationally why an animal with a split hoof that chews its cud is ok but one with a split hoof that doesn’t chew its cud is not ok.  You’ll never explain it because it’s irrational.

And the irrational of 8 continues.  Baby boys are circumcised on the 8th day after their birth (notice we count up from the birth, not down).  Circumcision is irrational. We do it because we are commanded to do it. Even if one argued a medical benefit, there is no medical benefit to be had by saying a bracha – it is clearly a spiritual moment.

Ancient Jewish texts list 8 genders within humanity.  If gender were rational, there would only be 2 to facilitate procreation, yet 2000 years ago the Sages were discussing 8 of them.  

The number 8, the space within Judaism where things exist and impact us but our minds will never catch up with them.  

Pesach just ended and we look forward to Shavuot – we are counting up toward the holiday.  The spirituality of Judaism is moving us toward a positive future moment and we can start to get excited for it.  We are still in our homes, Covid 19 is still not understood well enough and so the world around us has mostly shut down.  It is unrecognizable to us right now – it is the 8th day. But a beautiful Talmudic text states that all the harps of the Temple had 7 strings on them and all the soulful melodies of the Levites were played on those harps, but in the days of Redemption, the harps will have 8 strings on them.

So the 8th day is the day of the irrational, it has both positive and negative within it but it mostly has potential redemption.  It is only negative if we try to force it into the rules of the 7th day – if we fight it. We move through the 8th day often in our lives.  We need to accept it for what it is and understand that it speaks to our souls and in that way it can make us feel redeemed. We will feel it, we will never understand it.

The 8th day teaches us that our eyes are always forward.  It shows us that we are always counting up.