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Bamidbar Sermon

The greatest king of Israel was David, yet he sinned a number of times.  Interestingly one of his sins was exactly what Moses does in this week’s Torah portion.  According to the Bible David was punished for ordering a census.  The Book of Samuel reports: “David reproached himself for having numbered the people.  And David said to the Lord, ‘I have sinned grievously in what I have done.  Please, O Lord, remit the guilt of Your servant, for I have acted foolishly.’” (2 Samuel 24)

Apparently the counting of the tribes, the numbering of the people, reported in Parshat Bamidbar, was an exception, not the norm.  Moses takes a census of the people in order to muster the troops and determine how many battalions he has before his successor, Joshua, makes war on the inhabitants of the Promised Land.  This contrast between Moses and David brings to light Judaism’s discomfort with counting.  Throughout our history the numbering of people was greeted with great hesitation.

We do not live in such times.  We count how many friends we have—on Facebook.  We list how many followers we have—on Twitter.  We have the Forbes 500.  We make endless lists of people.  We count our possessions.  We count other people’s money, as well as our own. 

We count how many members belong to our clubs, and our synagogues.  The modern American Jewish scene appears obsessed with counting.  How many Jews are there?  Is it only 12 million, or perhaps 14 million?  This is of course understandable.  It was not so long ago that we lost six million.  How many more would we be if not for the Holocaust?  How different the Jewish landscape might be if not for our calamitous loss 65 years ago. 

But in the near obsession with tallying our numbers we may lose our essence.  This is why the tradition does not allow us to actually count towards a minyan.  Instead we use a biblical verse with ten words.  Psalm 28 is among the favorite choices: “Save Your people and bless Your treasured; care for them and sustain them forever.”  If we cannot complete the verse then we do not have the required number and the community is not “sustained”.  This is preferred over counting one, two, three…

By contrast today every birthday is considered momentous occasions.  My grandparents however were never 100% sure of their birthdays.  When it became more commonplace to celebrate birthdays it was miraculously determined that they were both born on the same day in the same year.

For their generation counting was seen as bad luck.  But we live in an age when we are over confident with our blessings.  Counting everything suggests such unwarranted confidence.  Perhaps it would be wise to take the tradition’s caution to heart.  We might be better served not to count so much.  In fact counting does not add meaning to our lives. 

It is not the number of friends one is surrounded with, but the depth of friendships.  It is not the size of the congregation, but the spirit of the community.  It is not the number of awards, or grades, or wealth, but whether or not we succeed in bringing blessings to the world around us.  These are my beliefs.

This week we also find ourselves nearing the ending of the counting of the Omer.  We count from Passover to Shavuot (the holiday celebrated in two weeks on June 7th).  The tradition is that we count the days, as we would count towards a birthday, until we receive the Torah on Mount Sinai.  Shavuot of course celebrates the giving of the Torah.  Passover celebrates our freedom from Egypt.  The two must be married to each other.  And thus we count from freedom to its meaning.

Our freedom from Egypt finds meaning in the Torah.  We only count to the gift of Torah.  Only the meaning and depth of Torah is worthy of our counting.  Everything else we would do well to observe the superstitions of old.  Count far less.  Focus instead on the people standing before us.

All we should count toward is meaning and depth.  And all that can be found in Torah.