We don't count Jews
When I was young I was admonished for counting people. “We don’t count Jews”, I was told. “Why?”, I asked. “It’s bad luck, it gives the evil eye an opening to fixate on one person or another and cause them harm, just don’t do it, it brings bad luck”. For some reason that idea of not counting Jews, not enumerating them, has stuck with me from that young age. I was reminded of that exchange when I read the opening to this week's portion of Ki Tissa.
God spoke to Moses, saying:
When you take a census of the Israelite men according to their army enrollment, each shall pay God a ransom for himself on being enrolled, that no plague may come upon them through their being enrolled.
Obviously the fear of counting Jews comes from this verse - bad things happen when you count people. Instead of physically counting each person, God goes on to tell Moses that each person must pay a half shekel and it is these half shekels that must be counted.
This is what everyone who is entered in the records shall pay: a half-shekel by the sanctuary weight—twenty gerahs to the shekel—a half-shekel as an offering to יהוה.
Everyone who is entered in the records, from the age of twenty years up, shall give God’s offering:
God went on to tell Moses that rich or poor, everyone pays the same amount.
There are many reasons why censuses are taken. Every country should know how many people live in that country, maybe for reasons of estimating future tax income, maybe for defining school districts, possible strength of an army, estimating population growth and many more reasons. When I first came to America I was amazed that a census is taken every 10 years - the whole country is counted, regardless of legal status - everyone is counted. There are so many reasons for doing this - the most obvious reason is for determining the assignment of congressional seats to different states - this is done according to the percentage of population living in a specific state.
So why is it that Jews are so opposed to being counted, if there are so many benefits to the census?
The commentators were divided in their opinions about the reasoning behind not counting Jews. Rashi says that counting is fraught with the danger of the “evil eye”. Rabbenu Bachaya took the approach that when you are counting it is done one-by-one. For a moment everyone is an individual instead of being a part of one single community. When standing on their own, a person's merit may not warrant saving from an adverse judgment. Most of the commentators take the approach that counting has evil associated with it and the results are bad for the individual.
I would like to think about a different approach. When the Torah tells us to do something, there is more often than not a very practical reason for doing so, even if it’s not always immediately evident, and maybe this is one such case.
As I mentioned earlier, countries take a census to understand their demographics and therefore their strength. For this reason, we as Jews do not count each other. Without a doubt we are a tiny nation of people - the total population of Jews throughout the world is smaller than a small statistical error in the Chinese census. Jews are a fifth of a percent of the population of the world. Too small an amount to be of any significance. It has always been that way.
In Deuteronomy Moses says:
“The Lord did not set his affection on you and chose you because you were numerous than other peoples, for you are the fewest of all peoples.”
There is a danger in asking Jews to count themselves - they may become disillusioned and despair at their few numbers as compared to other nations.
So how do you count the strength of the Jews? Instead of asking Jews to count themselves the Torah asks each Jew to give instead then to count their contributions. In terms of numbers we Jews maybe tiny, however in contributions to civilization we are enormous - more so than any other nation!
Jews have won forty percent of all Nobel prizes given out, forty eighth percent of Nobel Prizes in medicine alone. Think about Jews such as Einstein, Wittgenstein in sociology, Durkheiml in anthropology, Freud the father of psychiatry. An endless list of outstanding Jews in economics. In literature; Proust, Kafka, Agnon, Isaac Bashevis Singer. In music; Mahler, Schoenberg, Irving Berlin, Gershwin and so many more.Not even mentioning Hollywood that was literally invented by the Jews.
Think about Israel’s contributions in agriculture, in medicine, in engineering and hi-tech. A tiny nation giving the world some of the finest innovations and ideas of the 21st century.
Today there are 10 Jews in the Senate and 27 Jews in the house of representatives far outweighing their proportion of the US population which currently stands at a maximum of 2.2%. The Second Gentleman is a Jew! Just think of how many supreme court justices have been Jewish: Brandeis, Benjamin Cardozo, Felix Frankfurter, Arthur Goldberg, Abe Fortas, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer, and Elena Kagan.
It’s not only in the US, in Western Europe and anywhere where Jews are allowed to flourish, their footprint on society far outweighs their percentage of the population. They may be weak in numbers but mighty and powerful in their endless contributions to society and civilization.
If you want to know the strength of the Jewish people, ask them to give, and then count their contributions. That is the amazing concept right at the beginning of this week's portion.
What God has been saying to the Jewish people since Sinai is that you do not need numbers. You need dedication and commitment to an ideal, you need endless study and a vision of what you want to achieve, you need the courage to follow your heart and your ideals. The Jewish people are a people who are inclined to give, to contribute to society. Give, then count their contributions: This is without a doubt the most amazing and unique way to measure the true strength of a people.