What the Bible's First Census Says About Community: Why We Count | Aleph Beta

Why We Count

What The Bible's First Census Says About Community

Rabbi David Fohrman

Founder and Lead Scholar

In this video, Rabbi Fohrman points out a textual oddity - why does the Torah use two different words for "to count," and what do they each indicate? Through a deep analysis of the terms, we will come out with a stronger understanding of what it means to be an individual, but still part of a larger community.


Hi everybody, this is Rabbi David Fohrman and welcome to Parshat Bamidbar, you are watching Aleph Beta.

Today I want to talk to you about a path towards finding meaning in life and I want to talk to you about that in relation to three artists; Jackson Pollock, Claude Monet and Georges Seurat, and I want to do all of that in the context of this week's Parsha, Parshat Bamidbar. If that sounds challenging, just hang on and let's see where this goes.

God's First Census in the Bible

Parshat Bamidbar is all about counting. G-d commands Moshe to count the people and Rashi remarks strangely enough; Mitoch chibatan lefonov moneh otam kol sha'ah – because G-d has a sense of love for Israel He counts them all the time. It's a very strange statement by Rashi because it sounds almost like a billionaire who rubs his hand in glee and keeps on counting his money. What does it mean that G-d can't stop counting us, and that's somehow an act of love?

I'd like to discuss that with you today and I'd like to get under way by talking about the two words that are used most often in our Parsha for the idea of counting; Nasah and Pakad – those are the root words. You'll see them over and over again in our Parsha. But what's particularly interesting about these words is this, the words mean something else besides counting too.

Take a look for a minute at these two remarkable verses where these words appear.

Understanding the Meaning of Nasah and Pakad

Here's the first verse. Vayedaber Hashem el Moshe leimor – G-d says to Moses; Ach et mateh Levi loh tifkod – do not count the tribe of Levi. So Levi is going to be separated from the community, they're not going to be counted along with them. Then it says; V'et rosham loh tisah – and also don't count their heads. Here we have these two words Pakad and Nasah being used for counting, which we might expect.

But look at the very next verse. V'atah hafkeid et haLevi'im al mishkan ha'eidut – do you see that? Hafkeid comes from the very same Shoresh as Pakad – count, but it doesn't mean count, it means appoint the Levites upon the Tabernacle. They're going to be in charge of the Tabernacle and all of its associated utensils. Then, as if on cue, look at the next verb you have. Heima yisu et haMishkan – they're going to carry the Mishkan, but the word for carry is Yisu which is that same Shoresh as Nasah. So you have these same words that used to mean to count in a verse right after they've been used to mean to count but now they don't mean count anymore, they mean something else entirely; appoint and carry.

Leading to the great question, are the two meanings for each of these words related to one another? Is there a connection between counting and appointing? Is there a connection between counting and lifting?

Let's examine each word and its double meanings a little bit more closely.

A Closer Study of the Hebrew Words for Counting

Let's start with Nasah – to count or to lift up. It turns out that whenever our Parsha uses the word Nasah in the sense of count it's always paired with; Se'u et rosh benei yisrael – lift up the heads of the children of Israel. What a strange way of thinking about counting. Because you can play a little game here, you know if I'm lifting up heads then where were the heads before I lifted them? Presumably they were looking down – which I think gives a really interesting kind of spin to the notion of what it means to count heads.

There seems to be something affirming in some way about counting. It's almost like someone has gone from feeling downcast and now they're looking up and counting somehow is the thing that made it happen. And if that sounds entirely farfetched to you, just think about the English word count, it really has two meanings. One in the sense of numerically counting things, the other in terms of self-worth; when somebody has self-worth they feel like they count. That's kind of interesting.

Now let's talk about that other word, Pakad. We said before that Pakad can mean to count, it can also mean to appoint. But actually rather than the word appoint I would say more precisely it means to entrust. It's related to the Hebrew word Pikadon. A Pikadon is an object that I give you that I own that I entrust you with, I give it to you for safekeeping. In a way that's what happens when you get appointed to carry out some sort of responsibility, you're actually entrusted with some sort of responsibility, it's like you've been given a Pikadon to watch over, to safeguard. So somehow then maybe this idea of being counted also has to do with the idea of being entrusted in some way.

Maybe the two meanings of Pakad – entrust/count – and the two meanings of Nasah – lift up/count – are kind of connected to each other. Maybe the idea of Pakad explains the idea of Nasah. In other words, if you ask what is it about being counted that makes me feel meaningful? That makes be able to lift up my face?

The Meaning of Counting and Community in the Bible

The answer is it's the idea of being entrusted, having some sort of responsibility with reference to a goal that's much larger than myself. When I feel entrusted with that goal I really do feel like I count.

You see, at the end of the day what makes me feel as if I can lift my face up in the morning? What makes me feel like my life counts for something? Most people would say the answer to that is in living for something that is larger than yourself. If the only meaning of my life is self-preservation then it's like I live in order to live, that doesn't seem very meaningful. I need to live for something that's larger than myself, that will continue to exist, that will be noble and good and right, even when I, little me, goes away.

This idea of meaning is one of the reasons why people join communities. [I'm going to 6:05] ask you this, why not just be a solitary individual? A rugged individual, [let's say] cowboy off in Never-Never Land. Why be a part of a group at all? So yes there's all sorts of reasons, there's self-preservation, we can band together and protect ourselves better if we're part of a group. But there's actually a positive reason for joining a group as well, I might want to join a community if there was some sort of large, overarching goal that I could not achieve just by myself. One person can't solve poverty in Africa, one person can't ensure that battered children have a place to go on a dark and cold night. We join together with others when the projects we are trying to achieve exceed the grasp of any one individual.

What Is the Bible Saying About Community?

But there's also a danger here. Sometimes I join together with a group of individuals but the individuals don't really form a group, there's no real cohesion, it's just a whole bunch of people living together and I feel alone and isolated even though there is zillions of people around me. Each individual has very fine ideals, but one doesn't really connect to another and there's no overall purpose for the group. That's one kind of failed community.

But there's another kind of failed community too, which is a community whose sense of community is so dramatic, so pronounced, that it squashes all sense of individuality from among its members. The Western complaint against Communism was essentially that, it's a faceless kind of community, there is no room for the individuality in a community that swallows everything.

But there's a third kind of community, the kind of community that actually works, where people actually can find meaning. Every individual has a part of them which is their own individual identity, but there's a communal identity as well, and these things harmonize with each other, they work together. Each member of the community has a vital role to play in actualizing the mission of the whole.

These three kinds of communities can kind of be symbolized by the three painters I was talking to you about in the very beginning.

Take a look at the art of Jackson Pollock for example. Every individual element is recognizable, but there's no sense that it's coming together in any kind of way that makes this thing a whole, it just all looks random. That's one kind of failed community, the individual is there but there is no sense of community, no sense of shared purpose here.

Then at the other extreme take a look at a painter like Monet. Monet creates a very beautiful scene when you look at it as a whole, but when you try to identify the individual elements they're not there. When you look carefully at the people you notice that they really aren't even people at all, they're just little, indistinguishable brushes of paint. There is no individually carved out identity. So that's another model of community, that's the community that swallows all.

But then there's Georges Seurat the founder of Pointillism. When you look at his paintings from afar there is a grand scheme, it all comes together, but the theme does not come at the sacrifice of the individual. If you zoom in at its closest level, every little mark of paint is its own individual dot, everything is distinguishable. Each defined dot has its role to play in the execution of the whole. The painting works because the dots come together to make something grand, they all count. And, in being counted they are entrusted with the sacred purpose of the whole picture.

You see, what is it like to be part of the middle kind of community? That community where individuality is prized but communal purpose is sacred. In that kind of community as an individual I want to lend my unique capabilities and gifts towards a great communal goal that I can believe in. I want to contribute to the grand communal enterprise, because by contributing I count.

It's probably why elsewhere in the Torah when Israel is counted each person is meant to contribute something physical, a half-Shekel. It's by contributing to a communal endeavor that we count. And we count because we feel that we have a stake in the great mission of the community, that we are entrusted with that mission. That we are somehow personally responsible for it. It is through that sense of being entrusted with goals that are larger than myself, that I get real meaning in life.

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