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Torah reading: Numbers 1:1 to 4:20
Haftarah: Hosea 2:1 to 22

When I volunteered for this week's Torah reading, Navy Vet Terp (the amazing Kossack who organizes this series) joked that the Numbers passage would perhaps only be interesting to those who work for the census bureau. :D  After reading it, though, I found myself thinking about another census story that has always intrigued and puzzled me: David's sin of "counting the fighting men" and God's drastic punishment of three days of deadly plague (2 Samuel 24). Could the two stories be related? And why was David's census sinful while the census commanded by God in Numbers was not?

Among Christian commentary (which I am most familiar with) the most common explanation is that this shows a lack of faith in God. Unlike Gideon who fought the Midianite horde with only 300 men (Judges 7) and Joshua who led the Israelites against the vast army of Northern kings, "numerous as the sand on the seashore" (Joshua 11), David has chosen to put his faith, not in God, but in sheer military strength. Unsure of whether God would be able (or willing?) to keep Israel safe, he chooses to count the fighting men to prepare for a possible war. Though this explanation makes more sense to me than it used to, the deadly punishment sent by God seems rather out of proportion. Surely every character in the Bible has, at some point, displayed a lack of faith. Furthermore, I cannot recall anywhere in the Jewish Law where "doubt" or "lack of faith" is mentioned as a sin -- and God is hardly in the habit of "punishing" people for things that he's never forbidden.

A much more logical (and interesting) explanation is that provided by Rav Amnon Bazak in his commentary on the book of Samuel. Referencing Exodus 30, he writes:

"When you take the sum of the children of Israel, according to their number, then shall they give every man a ransom for his soul unto the Lord, when you number them; that there be no plague among them, when you number them. This they shall give, every one that passes among them that are numbered, half a shekel after the shekel of the sanctuary - the shekel is twenty geras - half a shekel for an offering to the Lord." (Shemot 30:12-13)

            The Torah does not forbid taking a census of the people of Israel, but it notes that the count is liable to bring plague, and there is a mitzva for each person to give a ransom for his soul in order to prevent this...The census [in 2 Samuel] was meant to provide a feeling of confidence, and to a certain degree, even pride. And it was precisely for this reason that the Torah prohibited counting the people of Israel for no reason and commanded about the giving of a half-shekel, which expresses the fact that the people of Israel belong to God, and therefore their count necessitates the payment of a ransom. When a person is counted, he becomes liable, as it were, for the death penalty, but he can save himself from this punishment by paying the ransom of a half-shekel.

Though this explanation is rooted in Jewish Law, it hints at a deeper reason why David's census was sinful. The truth is that the act of counting people is, nearly always, a dehumanizing act.

In the book and recent movie Les Miserables, the convict Jean Valjean has his name taken away from him. To society and to the merciless Inspector Javert, he becomes nothing but a number -- convict 24601. Similarly, in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, the imprisoned Joseph sings, "Just give me a number instead of a name…" (bringing to mind grim echoes of the Holocaust.) And one of my favorite authors, Madeleine L'Engle, has repeatedly written about the dehumanizing effect of being assigned a number at boarding school and called by this number rather than her name. In her fantasy novel for children, A Wind in the Door, she writes (referencing Psalm 147):

'Progo,' Meg asked. 'You memorized the names of all the stars - how many are there?'

'How many? Great heavens, earthling. I haven't the faintest idea.'

'But you said your last assignment was to memorize the names of all of them.'

'I did. All the stars in all the galaxies. And that's a great many.'

'But how many?'

'What difference does it make? I know their names. I don't know how many there are. It's their names that matter.'

All that matters, unless you are a Pharaoh or an emperor -- or a king preparing to go to war.

The census is the tool of empire. It reduces unique individuals to the level of a numerical abstraction, or interchangeable objects. When David conducts his census, his criterion for the "count" is one thing only: able-bodied men who can wield a sword. (The word "cannon fodder" springs to mind.) The Christian New Testament opens with the Roman Emperor Caesar Augustus conducting a census "of the whole world" -- for purposes of taxation and control.

It is this that Samuel warns the people about in 1 Samuel 8, when they ask God for a king:

“This is what the king who will reign over you will claim as his rights: He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots. Some he will assign to be commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and others to plow his ground and reap his harvest, and still others to make weapons of war and equipment for his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants. He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants. Your male and female servants and the best of your cattle and donkeys he will take for his own use. He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves."
A king, Samuel is saying, will see you as numbers to be conscripted or taxed or enslaved -- not as individuals. As Kant would put it, to see people as numbers is to see them as a means to an end, not an end in themselves. Only God (who not only "numbers the stars" but also "calls them all by name") should decide when his people are to be counted.

There is a level of abstraction involved in numbering people that short-circuits the human ability for empathy. When we see an appeal for donations to help victims of famine or flooding or refugees displaced by war, the numbers of those affected may be in the thousands or even millions. But we seem to go numb to numbers alone. It is the individual story, the individual face (or, failing that, a "dramatic" disaster event like the Boxing Day tsunami or the Haiti earthquake) that awakens our compassion and our ability to give.

Today I learned that the death toll from the collapsed factory in Bangladesh had exceeded 1000. Though I felt angry and sickened by the results of intentional neglect and our own greed for cheap clothing, the number itself held little concrete meaning for me. Instead, it was this picture, entitled "A Final Embrace", that truly moved me.

In our modern, global world with its fascination with statistics, efficiency, and growth, we must not forget to see people as individuals: as ends in themselves, rather than means to our own ends.

Shabbat Shalom!

Originally posted to Street Prophets on Fri May 10, 2013 at 07:24 AM PDT.

Also republished by Elders of Zion and Community Spotlight.

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