Jewish learning Safety in Numbers
Parashat B’midbar (Numbers 1:1-4:20)
Numbers. It says it right there in the English name for the book of Torah that we begin reading this week: this book is about numbers. What does it mean for this suddenly free people to be numbered? Can we be truly free if we are constrained by being one in a number? Yet can we have a functioning society without making an accounting of people?
The first numbering in the book of Numbers is a census of men of military age. And this week’s Torah portion alone contains three different numberings: the census of men old enough to bear arms, the census of the Levites, and the census of first-born males who are not Levites.
The text also lays out which tribe is to camp where and in which order they are to march. The men of military age alone number 603,550. Large groups of people trying to move together through the wilderness need to move in some kind of order and ordering means numbering, oversight, the funneling of individual ideas of where to camp and when to march into a larger social structure.
This is not the whole of the book of Numbers, of course. It also contains some of the most vibrant depictions of individuals: Bilaam and his talking donkey, Korach and his disastrous efforts to be recognized as not simply one in the number, the daughters of Tzelophechad successfully arguing that an exception be made to the rules of inheritance due to their unique circumstances, and more. As Everett Fox points out in his introduction to the Book of Numbers, while the other books of Torah “also mix narrative, law, poetry….none of them has combined and alternated these genres with such abandon.”
I see a dance in this mix of censuses of populations and stories of vibrant individuals. It speaks to what it means to form a functioning society that asks each of us to participate fully in community without losing our individuality.
In these first months of this ongoing pandemic, I have been grateful to be living somewhere where I feel cared for as one in a population, even when this means curtailing some aspects of individual freedoms. I have truly felt myself and my family to be part of a massive communal effort to flatten the curve. I get twice daily updates from the Ministry of Health and I have never taken statistics so personally.
Because, of course, there is a cost to this kind of numbering of people. I’ve been known to rant to my rabbinic colleagues (and anyone else who will listen) about the shallowness of quantitative studies of Jewish communal life in the United States. And I am certainly not alone in the world of fat activism in reminding people over and over again that the Body Mass Index (BMI) was created for understanding risks to populations and cannot, in the absence of other data, tell us anything meaningful about the health or illness of an individual.
Within and beyond these pet peeves, there is the basic concern that numbering people is dehumanizing. Gamely participating in the communal efforts to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, we mask our own faces, obscuring our individuality.
But what are we to do? When I am only a number, I am dehumanized. When I refuse to be a number, I risk being anti-social, breaking the social contract at the heart of human life as we know it: both a coming together and a compromise of individual needs and desires so that we may band together to live long enough to heartily enjoy our own “half a loaf.”
So, here we are, in Israel at least, on the downward slope of the curve we worked to flatten. Schools and stores and restaurants are opening up again, and we are all hopeful that this first wave of the pandemic is truly winding down and that we have the measures in place to catch a second wave before it becomes too deadly.
But my family up until now has still been staying at home, fiercely protecting the safety of a family member who is at high risk of dire consequences from becoming ill with COVID. This has meant that we are in the second week in which—unbeknownst to her, although who knows what is really ever “unbeknownst” to a perceptive four year old—our daughter’s schoolmates have been going to Gan (Israeli pre-K and kindergarten) without her.
Her schoolmates are numbered in the attendance and she is not. Does this mean we are essentially saying to those sweet preschoolers, “Can you, dear friends, be the numbers for a while so that we can use your experience to assess whether it is safe to count ourselves among you again?” I shudder to think that it’s their numbers that we are watching. I can see every one of their adorable faces and wouldn’t wish this or any other disease on them. Yet we have been waiting and watching to see whether there is a surge in cases on the population level as things open up.
And so I feel in this again the deep dance that characterizes the Book of Numbers: the dance between census and story, between the longed-for immunity of the herd and the need to protect the most vulnerable of society’s members. In our own lives, in our own families, in our communities, in our countries, may we be blessed with the ability to number and order people wisely without forgetting that each individual human is immeasurably unique and invaluable.
Rabbi Minna Bromberg is a singer, songwriter, rabbi, and voice teacher who lives in Jerusalem with her husband, Rabbi Alan Abrams, and their two children. Believing that singing both demands and teaches an integration of body, mind, and spirit, Minna teaches voice to rabbis, rabbinical students, and lay people who use their voices in leading prayer. Ordained at the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College in 2010, she currently runs the school’s Year-in-Israel Program for rabbinical students.