It was a cold and wintry day, about this time of year, when I paid a visit to a small Jewish community in the midwest. The rabbi of the local synagogue invited me to join him for the afternoon prayer service, Mincha.
Because of the time of year, the day was short, and sunset was shortly after 4 p.m. I told them that even in the larger Jewish community in which I lived then, it was difficult to put together a minyan of ten adult men at that time of day. He assured me that there would be a minyan, and said, “Just come and see.”
We arrived in shul where there were six or seven elderly men, all retired. With about thirty seconds to go until the announced time for Mincha, I could see two bicycles pull up to the rear of the shul with two young boys dashing into the small beit midrash. It seems that the rabbi had an arrangement with the local day school that they would send several students of bar mitzvah age each day to guarantee the minyan. I will never forget the enthusiastic welcome those two boys received. I will especially never forget the look on their faces when they realized how much they really counted.
One of the benefits of being a member of a small Jewish community is that each person counts. No one is taken for granted, and everyone has a significant role to play. In short, everyone counts.
In this week’s Torah portion, Pikudei, we learn many lessons about counting and accounting. The very word “Pikudei” means “accounts of”, and the entire parsha is one long accounting of every single gift to the Tabernacle. One way of looking at this week’s Torah portion is as a lesson in the importance of accountability.
But as each Tabernacle item is carefully counted, we learn a deeper lesson as well. We learn that each item that is counted is blessed. That each counted item is blessed may seem obvious, but it contradicts an interesting dictum in the Talmud (Taanit 8b): “Blessing is not bestowed upon things which are weighed, nor upon things which are measured, nor upon things which are counted. Blessing is only bestowed upon things which are hidden from the eye.”
This Talmudic adage reflects the negative attitude of our tradition toward the procedure of counting. King David, for example, was sorely punished for undertaking a census of the Jewish people. Indeed, as we read in Parshat Ki Tisa just two weeks ago, when a census of the people was necessary, each person was asked to contribute a half shekel so that the coins could be counted, but not the people themselves.
I have often thought that this aversion to counting reflects a reluctance to reduce a person to a number. It is dehumanizing to be a statistic. The ultimate reduction of a person to a number was the tattooed number that we have all seen on the arms of Holocaust survivors. The Nazis knew how thoroughly demeaning it is to count a person as if he or she were an object.
Aware of this negative attitude toward counting, the great Chassidic master, Rabbi Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev, finds the public counting of each and every Tabernacle item to be inconsistent with the statement that blessings are not bestowed upon things that are counted. His answer, found in his commentary, Kedushat Levi, is based upon a verse in Song of Songs (7:8): “Your eyes are as the pools of Heshbon”. Creatively, Rabbi Levi Yitzchok points out that the Hebrew word for “pools” can also mean “blessings” and that the place name “Heshbon” can mean “counting”. Thus, the verse then reads, “Your eyes bring blessings even upon that which is counted.”
The lesson here is that whether counting is negative or positive depends very much upon one’s perspective, upon one’s “eyes.” If you are counting people as numbers, or even physical things in a materialistic manner, then counting is negative. However, if the things you count are seen from a spiritual perspective, then counting is undeniably a positive process. The items of the Tabernacle are counted in this week’s Torah portion are consecrated objects, only used to express religious devotion. Therefore, counting them designates them as special and unique.
On that winter day in the small synagogue, two young boys were counted. But they were counted from the perspective of their importance to a group of men who wanted to pray. They were counted in recognition of the role each and every individual plays in the broader community. They were counted because they mattered very much.
When I extract the experience I had that day, I recall what the boys exclaimed as they enthusiastically bounced into that small beit midrash.
They each shouted, “Count me in, count me in!
Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb is executive vice president emeritus of the Orthodox Union (OU).