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.