Teach Us to Number, O God!

Robbie Harris
Bemidbar By :  Robert Harris Professor of Bible and Ancient Semitic Languages Posted On May 15, 2010 / 5770 | Torah Commentary

Our Torah portion this week begins the fourth book of the Torah (see? I’m numbering already!), B’midbar. This Hebrew name of the book comes from one of the first significant words in the book, and means “in the wilderness of . . . ” (see below). But in rabbinic antiquity, another name of the book circulated, and that was humash (orseferHa-piqqudim, which essentially means “Book of Counting” (see, e.g., Mishnah Yoma 7:1). This name corresponds to the ancient Jewish Greek version, Arithmoi, which was rendered by the Latin Vulgate Numeri, from which comes our current English title, “Numbers.”

Thus we are not surprised to find that the most prominent feature of the parashah is the census that God commanded Moses to undertake:

On the first day of the second month, in the second year following the exodus from the land of Egypt, the Lord spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the Tent of Meeting, saying: Take a census of the whole Israelite community by the clans of its ancestral houses, listing the names . . . You and Aaron shall record them (tifqedu ‘otam). (Num. 1:1–3)

You may see (and hear) in the Hebrew tifqedu ‘otam an echo of the same root used by some of the ancient rabbis to entitle the book (humash/sefer ha-piqqudim). However one may choose to translate the verse, the command is clear: “Conduct a census!” The timing of our Torah portion could not (coincidentally) be more propitious: the United States is currently engaged in collecting and analyzing the data from the recent census, a process that is mandated by U.S. law to occur once every ten years. In ancient Israel, however, there were generally negative feelings against any kind of a regular census (perhaps on account of its use in connection with taxes or military service). In fact, one biblical narrative describes a census undertaken by David that God had not previously authorized, and says that David came to feel it was a sinful act; the results, in any case, were disastrous (see 2 Samuel 24 for the full narrative).

To this day some Jewish customs frown on counting people—even for a minyan! “Cattle are counted, people are not counted,” I recall a teacher of mine telling us. The custom therefore developed to either “not count” to determine whether or not a minyan was present (“not one, not two, not three,” etc.) or to recite a ten-word biblical verse as one scanned the room (one popular verse is Psalm 28:9: hoshia et amekha u-varekh et nahalatekha ureim ve-nase’em ad ha-olam, “Deliver and bless Your very own people; tend them and sustain them forever.”). The use of this particular verse gave rise to the popular “Chelm joke”: “How many people does it take to make a minyan in Chelm? Fifteen. Why? Because they sing the verse from Psalms 28:9, and the melody requires the repetition: ureim, ureim, ureim, ureim ve-nase’em, ureim ve-nase’em ad ha-olam!” OK, so it wasn’t my best joke. On the other hand, when I am feeling particularly rambunctious, I count by pointing at folks and using the familiar chant from the Passover Seder: dam, tfardea, kinim. Of course, I never actually finish that one.

At this time of year, Jews are engaged in a different kind of counting altogether—sefirat ha-omer, the counting of the ‘Omer. This practice is rooted in a biblical command:

And from the day on which you bring the sheaf of elevation offering—the day after the sabbath—you shall count off seven weeks. They must be complete: you must count until the day after the seventh week—fifty days; then you shall bring an offering of new grain to the Lord. (Lev. 23:15–16)

Although, of course, we no longer bring “offerings of new grain” at the conclusion of the seven weeks of counting, we do thereby mark the passage of time between the holidays of Passover and Shavu’ot. As we count off this period of weeks, night after night, we may learn to appreciate how quickly time passes—and how much we have to respect the flight of time, and all of the things we hope to accomplish during our all-too-brief lives.

Counting can be figurative as well as literal. One of my favorite “contemporary” prayers is found as a meditation on the announcement of a New Moon service in the old Silverman Sabbath and Festival Prayer Book (p. 129):

O heavenly Father, the approach of another month reminds us of the flight of time and the change of seasons. Month follows month; the years of man’s life are few and fleeting. Teach us to number our days that we may use each precious moment wisely. May no day pass without bringing us closer to some worthy achievement. Grant that the new month bring life and hope, joy and peace to all Thy children. Amen.

This modern prayer is rooted in Psalms 90:12: limnot yamenu ken hoda ve-navi levav hokhmah, “Teach us to count our days rightly, that we may obtain a wise heart.” The type of “counting” imagined in this Psalm (and in the Silverman prayer book) is, of course, altogether different than understood by God’s command in Numbers that Moses take a census of the Israelite nation. This counting is rather of the existential type, and attempts to gear us towards appreciating every moment of our lives. As the twelfth-century biblical commentator R. Abraham ibn Ezra points out, this verse should remind us of another verse from Psalms (39:5): “Tell me, O Lord, what my term is, what is the measure of my days; I would know how fleeting my life is.” Ibn Ezra goes on to explain, “the sense is that we should know that the number of our days will be very few.” (Even if we are blessed with what is, in human terms, a “long” life; see earlier in the Psalm 90:4–10.)

This is a sobering thought, of course, but one that we should nonetheless keep “front and center” in our consciousness if we are not to let our lives slip away from us, not fully appreciating the opportunities for living that are offered to us every day. So let us promise ourselves that we will rededicate ourselves to really appreciating life where itcounts: “Teach us to number our days that we may use each precious moment wisely.”

The publication and distribution of the JTS commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.