How many of you have ever heard someone say that there were 600,000 people at Sinai?
Do you know where this number comes from?
In this parsha, there is a census. They count all of the men above the age of 20 who were able to bare arms. Except they don’t count the Levites.
And at the end, we read:
All the Israelites, aged twenty years and over, enrolled by ancestral houses, all those in Israel who were able to bear arms—all who were enrolled came to 603,550. (Number 1:48)
Which, rounded, is the 600,000 that is regularly counted.
So that’s where the idea that there were 600,000 people at Sinai came from.
But there’s just one problem. Which maybe someone here has already guessed.
This number does not count women, children, or even the Levites. So applying the count from this particular census to the number of people present at Mt. Sinai gives us an incorrect picture. From the perspective of Mt. Sinai attendance, this census is extremely exclusive.
BUT within the context of Bemidbar, there is a reason only these people are counted. These are the people who are going to be in the troops. The counting is part of their organizing for if they need to engage in battle. This count is useful when it is applied to the right cause. But it’s important to know who you want to count in what case and for what purpose. Because who you count is who you pay attention to.
There are two areas of modern day counting that I wanted to bring our attention to this week, one is related to the Jewish community more generally and one is related to our particular Chevrei community.
In the larger Jewish community, there have been a flurry of articles this week regarding the number of Jews of Color in the US. One article claimed that 12% of Jews are Jews of Color, another responded that there are only 6%. A third writes that there have been systemic problems in the counting of Jews of color in demographic surveys which has most likely led to a sharp underestimation of the number of American Jews of Color. The problems named include:
They concluded: “we recommend that future Jewish population studies adopt better and more consistent practices for sampling populations, weighting responses, and formulating more comprehensive and sensitively worded questions.”
When I learned this, I had a lot more appreciation for the repetition in our Torah portion which after counting each tribe, repeats over and over again who it is that is being counted: . We need to know how many Jews of color there are, just like we need to know how many people of any demographic there are. Part of being inclusive means making sure everyone is being counted, so that we can try to take into account the various needs that different demographics have.
At the same time, I want to acknowledge that there are times when we can’t do a perfect accounting. Take the Chevrei community for example. If we wanted to, we could count who is in the community by looking at the membership, but if we only think about who our members are, then we miss out on everyone else that is touched by what we in this community do. The people who come for high holidays, family members of members, former members, people who come for a limud or a discussion or because they want to see a friend or a relative lead Havdalah. All these people “count” in our community too, if in a different way than members, and if we only count members, we don’t count all of the other ways that people engage in our community.
Of course there are times that membership counts, and we for sure do need to keep working on looking out for one another and making time. This parsha is the point where Moses needed to know who were the members of his community that were eligible to be in his troops.
But Moses’ community expanded beyond that, and so does ours.
So my challenge to you is to look beyond our membership and think, who else do we need to count when we think of the greater Chevrei community, and what could counting mean?
And what might this counting look like?
Here are a few suggestions of ways to further expand who we include when we count:
My hope is that we too can reach out both internally and externally, we also do it with that kind of love, that we cherish each encounter we have as an opportunity both to lovingly count and to lovingly be counted. Shabbat Shalom.