“Take a census of the whole Israelite community by the clans of its ancestral houses, listing the names, every male, head by head” Numbers 1:2


Each of the five books of the Torah is known by one of its first words — Bereshit, Shemot etc — as well as by a second name given to it by the Sages. The rabbinic name for Sefer Bemidbar is essentially the same as its English name, “Numbers”. The rabbis called it Sefer Hapikudim, the Book of Counting, as it begins with a census of the Jewish people.

The verse states (Numbers 1:2) “Take (se’uh) the sum of all the congregation of the children of Israel.” There are several censuses taken in the Torah for different purposes: to count the number of able-bodied men for war, to identify the amount of individual monetary contributions to the Temple, or to display God’s affection for His people after a time of punishment.

According to Rashi, these countings are an expression of love, much as people count and keep track of anything dear to them, whether wealth, family members, or their collectibles.

Rabbenu Bechaye (1255 -1340, Spain) explains that the Hebrew word used in this instance for “counting” is se’uh, which literally means to lift up. In other words, the objective of this counting was to excite the people and to lift them up as they looked forward to moving on to the Land of Israel.

Similarly, we are about to celebrate Shavuot, which comes at the end of a 49-day count. Instead of counting down, we count up — in essence mimicking the ascent to Mount Sinai and its spiritual elevation. Once again, we are saying to continue to look upwards and forward.

During these days of lockdown, when we can’t be counted “together”, we struggle to find purpose with the strength which comes from working with others towards a common goal. This is something we miss by not being able to gather and pray together in our synagogues.

Instead, we must all be counting, or keeping track of, ourselves. Only we can ensure that we are still using this time to strengthen our Jewish identities through our own efforts or with the aid of the myriad of incredible prayer and educational opportunities now available to each of us online. This way, when we are able to return, our numbers will be stronger than ever.


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