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Numbers: Useful but Also Misleading

Sermon by Rabbi Melanie Aron

June 4, 2016

When faced with a decision I like to gather information and often that information is based on numbers. This is true for us as individuals, as institutions and as entire communities. We gather data as a way of increasing our understanding and we look to the data rather than relying solely on our intuition or hunches. Big data is now allowing us to understand patterns that we did not see before in science, medicine, and even in planning for religious school.

But there is a downside of depending on numbers and we see that in the Jewish attitude towards taking a census.

 On the one hand Jewish tradition has understood the value of having accurate information. Rashbam, the grandson of the famous Biblical commentator Rashi, notes that the census we have in this week’s Torah portion is of strategic value. The Israelites are about to enter the Promised Land (remember the spies have not yet been sent out to scout the land, nor have they been punished with 40 years of wandering in the desert). If they are shortly to go into battle, it is vital that they know how many are eligible for military service. Others, including our teacher this morning Rina, note that the information was useful for more than just mustering an army. It is only the second year after the Exodus and the camp is still being organized. Knowing the numbers in each tribe is an administrative boon. It allows the apportioning of the tribes to set locations and creates a structure of responsibility. In this way, rather than having 600,000 individuals wandering in the desert, we have an organized community, with systems of mutual aid and responsibility.

But there is also something in Judaism that resists the census. In commenting on this portion, the rabbis of Bamidbar Rabbah chose to remind us of the many times we had been told in the Torah that the Jewish people could not be numbered.  Abraham was promised that his people would be like the stars in the sky, so numerous that they cannot be counted. Similarly Isaac was promised by God that his descendants would multiply like the sand on the shores of the sea, which cannot be counted. Finally when Jacob was blessed, he was told that his children would be like the dust of the earth, impossible to number. Even Balaam, the enemy of Israel, in blessing them at God’s insistence, asks rhetorically, who can measure or number this people, with the required answer, that it cannot be done. When King David takes a census at the close of Second Samuel, that is a sin for which he and the people are punished.

Why then this tension about the census?

Our tradition recognized the potential for dehumanization in counting people. There is a danger that we will lose sight of each person’s individuality and they will be thought of as merely a cog in a larger machine. Some commentators believe that is why there is insistence that we count each person’s contribution, as in Parashat Ki Tisa in the book of Exodus, where we count each person’s half shekel, rather than the person themselves. That is how the Jewish people counted themselves in Roman times, a system imitated in the early years of the Zionist movement. To this day there are some traditional Jews who will not count people, but either say, not 1, not 2, or use a Biblical verse with ten words, in order to count and see if there is a minyan for services.

We see the danger of numbers in our own world. Young people feel that their value is in the number of their SAT score, their GPA, or their stats in whatever sport they participate in.  Part of the struggle for some adults in retirement, is that their sense of their self-worth was built on the rising value of the money they earned, and then all of a sudden they  are not earning any money. Even in synagogues we tend to see values in numbers, more members, more attendees, when perhaps there may be more value in some event, or class, or experience that had a deeper impact on a smaller number of people.

The Jewish people have never been a significant % of the population here in the United States nor in the world, yet our impact has been significant. Perhaps that is the most convincing argument that sometimes numbers don’t tell us everything  about the value of an individual. As we go forth this morning, let us remain part of the reality based community, but remember always that the numbers are only part of the story.

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