Count the ways…

Rachel LaVictoire,  is a recipient of the prestigious Nemerov Writing and Thomas H. Eliott Merit scholarships at Washington University, where she is a sophomore. She grew up in Atlanta, where she is an active member of Temple Emanu-El and the Marcus Jewish Community Center.

By Rachel LaVictoire

It’s 1:06 a.m. on the 5th day of the 5th month of the year and I’m working in a room with all 3 light switches flipped on and all four windows cracked open. My backpack and I are occupying 2 of the 4 wooden chairs that surround the wooden table which is covered with 3 laptops, 2 empty to-go boxes, 4 textbooks, and 1 bulk-sized bag of cheddar popcorn. My 2 friends and I have been sitting in the 8×10 study room on the 4th floor of a 9 year-old dorm building for 3 hours and 30 minutes. In total, we have 7 exams in the next 4 days. Nick has 73 more pages to read, and his 1 and only exam is in 2 days. Then, in 5 days, I’ll load up my Ford’s 14-gallon gas tank and start the 583-mile drive back to Atlanta.

Or, I could tell you this:

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Right now, it’s a Saturday night in May, and I’m sitting in a study room with two of my friends. Only, I don’t even know if I can even say I’m with them—the fortitude of good company faded to an illusion two hours ago when we jammed headphones in our ears and put up our apple-stamped walls of isolation. Sometimes we’ll come back, long enough to share an interesting fact with the group—an artist who made a skull out of diamonds, or the optical illusion that made Will Ferrell seem like a really large elf—but mostly, we keep our heads down, crunching numbers and scribbling notes, hoping to condense the hundreds of pages of accounting, art history, psychology, and other nonsensical subjects into a box so small we just might be able to store it in our heads long enough to get through final exams.

Both descriptions provide fairly similar details—where I am, who I’m with, and what we’re doing—but in very different ways. And although it’s safe to say that the latter of the two paragraphs is probably the more common one, I’m not sure that it’s actually the better one.

Numbers are powerful. They allow for that striking difference between a “really tall” kid in your class and a “6-feet-7-inch college freshman”; or for the specificity that turns a “rare” disease into a one that you have a “1 percent chance” of getting. Numbers are powerful in their objectivity and in their relatability—they have no bias and no language barrier. We all speak in numbers.

And maybe that’s why this week, in the 34th parshah, Bamidbar, G-d calls for a census. G-d spoke to Moses, saying, “take the sum of all the congregation of the children of Israel, by families following their fathers’ houses; a head count of every male according to the number of their names. From twenty years old and upwards… you shall count them by their legions you and Aaron” (Numbers 1:2-3). Moses and Aaron did as they were told, and reported back with counts of each tribe: tribe of Reuben—46,500, tribe of Simeon—59,300, tribe of Gad—45,650, tribe of Judah—74,600, tribe of Issachar—54,400, tribe of Zebulun—57,400, tribe of Ephraim—40,500, tribe of Manasseh—32,200, tribe of Benjamin—35,400, tribe of Dan—62,700, Asher—41,500, and the tribe of Naphtali—53,400. (The Levites are missing from this count because G-d gave specific instructions regarding their tribe, though I don’t plan on delving into those details.)

Only then did Moses and Aaron give the sum total: 603,550 children of Israel from twenty years and upwards. Then, after the counting eleven separate tribes and the consolidating into one sum total, G-d asked for the division of the Israleites into four legions—“The children of Israel shall encamp each man by his … some distance from the Tent of Meeting they shall encamp” (Numbers 2:2). So, Moses and Aaron went and returned once more with new numbers: in the legions of Judah’s camp were186,400; in the legions of Reuben’s camp were 151,450; in the legions of Ephraim’s camp were 108,100; and in the legions of Dan’s camp were 157,600. And again, it’s said, the total number of the legions of the camps was 603,550.

And this brings about another power of numbers: the property of conservation—regardless of how a number is divided, its value is constant. The same holds true for the Israelites. After being divided into tribes and brought back together, there were 603,550 children of Israel. After being divided into legions and then brought back together, there were were, again, 603,550 children of Israel. It’s not relative—no one man becomes more or less valuable because of his surroundings. Rather, we are all equal, all counted as one person. It may be difficult to hear—that regardless of what we accomplish or aspire to accomplish, we’re still each just one person among hundreds of thousands of others—but it’s also an invaluable concept. Be kind and respectful to others, don’t be afraid to fail, balance work and play—these are all enhanced by the idea that we are only one person.

It’s easy, especially in a whirlwind of stress and craze, to become focused on your own microcosm, full of the subjective experiences that you and your family and friends share everyday. Taking one step back, though, spending “sooo much time” studying “everything” in order to pass the “really important test” is actually just a small fraction of your 24-hour day, spent reading a few chapters of a subject, so that you, one of 300 other students in your class, can pass one, 50-question test. Numbers give us perspective.