This week’s Torah portion opens with the second census of the aptly named “Book of Numbers.” God, it seems, enjoys counting us. Talmudic law, on the other hand, following the disastrous consequences of a census taken much later by King David, forbids counting any group of Jews. What’s up with the issue of counting?
In another context, the Talmud instructs farmers, upon entering the granary, to recite a blessing over the work of their hands. If, however, the farmer first counts or measures the produce, no blessing is to be recited. The Talmud elaborates, “a blessing is not found either in an object that is weighed or in an object that is measured or in an object that is counted. Rather, a blessing is found only in an object that is hidden from the eye.”
One commentator, the Akeidat Yitshak, explains that true blessing is not to be found in wealth or possessions; the sorts of things which may be counted. The realm of the spirit defies quantification. An element of mystery and enchantment is necessary for the recitation of a blessing to be appropriate.
We love polls, surveys and statistics. Data gives us a sense of control. But religious life seeks to occupy a space where the desired outcomes may not be known in advance. The lack of clarity resists measure; it must be richly described. In a human census, we are just a number. In God’s eyes, we truly count.
Rabbi Mitch Levine