Judaism’s aversion to counting ourselves

By Rabbi Josef Davidson

“Not-one, not-two, not-three” – those who attend daily services will recognize this as the method employed in counting the number of people in attendance in order to determine if a quorum, or minyan, has been reached. For millennia Judaism has had an aversion to counting people, assigning them numbers, as it were. Certainly in a post-Holocaust world, Jews might have an even stronger aversion, given the Nazis’ dehumanization strategy of tattooing numbers on inmates of their work and death camps. 

For years, people of all types have complained of being treated as if they were “just numbers.” After all, in the post office, in grocery stores, at the license bureau and many other establishments, one is supposed to take a number and then wait to be called by that number. People have to manage so many numbers in their lives by which they are known — Social Security numbers (which, if stolen means one’s identity has also been stolen), phone numbers, account numbers, PIN (personal identification) numbers — the list goes on and on. Being treated like a number, being known by one’s number — these are all ways in which people feel dehumanized, as if they, as individuals, do not count.

So, if this is so, then it is most curious that our Torah portion for this week, Ki Tissa, begins with the taking of a census, as we read in the opening verses:  “Ki Tissa Et-Rosh Bnei Yisra’el Lifkudeihem  . . . When you take a census of the Israelite people according to their enrollment . . .” (Exodus 29:12) The Hebrew idiom for taking a census is an interesting one. It literally means “Lift the head.” What does this mean?

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In the part of the Joseph story wherein Joseph is in prison after being falsely accused, at the end of Parshat Vayeshev (Genesis 40:13 and 19), the same idiom is employed twice; however, the meanings are very different from the verse in Shmot and from each other. In the case of the chief cupbearer, Joseph interprets his dream as indicating that the Pharaoh would pardon him (Yissa Phar`oh Roshcha). However, in the case of the chief baker, the same idiom is interpreted literally as “lift off your head.” The chief cupbearer is restored to his position, and the chief baker is executed. 

Perhaps “lifting the head” of those who are to be counted can be accomplished in two different manners. One elevates the people being counted, lifts their heads higher, by indicating to them that they count, that they mean something, that they are not just numbers. The other manner of lifting the head is to take the life out of another, to emphasize how interchangeable people are, to denigrate the uniqueness of each individual. “I am somebody!” was the clarion call in the struggle for civil rights to be recognized as a human being, not just a number or a stereotype.  “I am somebody!” is what Jewish tradition advocates when it discourages the assignation of numbers to people, even when counting the house in order to assure a minyan

It is in the power of each one of us to lift the head of another, either in a way that assures or restores his/her dignity or in a way that lifts his/her head off of his/her shoulders. When the head of another is lifted, one is able to view that person eye-to-eye and to see the humanity within.

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Josef Davidson serves Congregation B’nai Amoona and is Treasurer of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association.