Numbers, numbers, numbers

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In shul last weekend we read the first parshah in the Book of Numbers, badmidbar, and its haftarah portion from Hosea. And there were some things that connected with me, struck me as very timely, and that I wanted to write a nice essay about. An essay that would connect a bunch of things in the Scripture and in the world today, and come up with a conclusion, or a lesson that I’d learned, or some notion of consolation or redemption.

Well, and this is the essay that connects the things. I don’t actually have any conclusion yet, after several days of musing over those things. I doubt I will have any conclusion by the time I have finished writing about the things. My plan is to post it anyway—hey, it’s a blog, remember those? There’s a place for comments. Maybe one of y’all Gentle Readers will contribute a conclusion. Maybe more than one of y’all, ideally, with different and incompatible ones. We’ll see.

Before I talk about the Scripture, I’m going to divert myself for a paragraph or so to talk about talking about Scripture. I write in English, and I think in English, and my Hebrew is frankly terrible; if I didn’t have technological aids, I wouldn’t be able to talk about the Hebrew at all. I like the Hebrew, though, and it’s generally the Hebrew that sparks any actual ideas that I have, although as I say, the ideas are in English. There’s a tension there, between languages, between words and ideas. Right? And I’m aware that y’all are reading this in English, and that almost nobody who reads anything on this Tohu Bohu thinks in Hebrew. This is isn’t a bad thing, and in fact I think a lot of the insights that have come to me in this blog have sprung from that tension. But they are, in fact, different languages, and different contexts, and different traditions.

One thing about this is the names of the books—the Hebrew tradition is to call the book after its first significant word, so it’s called bamidbar, in the wilderness. In English, we call it Numbers, following the early Greek and Latin translators, who named it after its first significant event, the Divine instruction for Moses to take a census of all the Israelites in the wilderness. Neither name really identifies the contents of the book as a whole, but the book does involve both things, and one is probably as good a name as the other. It’s just confusing that they’re different. Similarly, the verse in Hosea that I’m going to be talking about will be Hosea 1:10 in English bibles, but Hosea 2:1 in Hebrew ones. There’s a reasonable case to be made that the English delineation is correct (vaddevah dat means) but the case remains that in Hebrew bibles the first Chapter of Hosea only has nine verses, while in English ones it has eleven. Numbers, numbers, numbers.

So, the Divine tells Hosea that the number of the children of Israel shall be as the sand of the sea, which cannot be measured nor numbered. Now, this is a simile, of course, and Hosea is just saying that there will be many of us. But the wild thing about this verse is that a tradition has grown up that it is literally forbidden for Jews to number Jews. In observant congregations, when they are making sure that there is a minyan of ten people, they will not count one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten. Not in English, not in Hebrew, not even in Yiddish. The people are literally not to be counted. But at the same time, it’s important to know how many of them there are. Ten Jews is a minyan, whether they are men of learning and piety or not; nine rabbis is not. So, what’s a Jew to do?

You could give everyone a marble, and everyone could put a marble into a dish, and then you can count the marbles. That is absolutely allowed, and at the end of it, you will know how many people there are. More traditionally, you can recite a verse that consists of ten words (one tradition uses Psalms 28:9) and if you can point at a different person at each word, you know there are at least ten people in the room. You could do that with anything there are ten of, actually, or even anything that you just know how many there are: if you list all Twelve Tribes while pointing at different people, there are more than ten people. I’ve heard of a community counting by the Plagues of Egypt. Heck, you could do it with the names of the movies in the three Star Wars trilogies, and then see if there’s anybody left. A more amusing, bust still allowable way is to not-count people in the following manner: not-one, not-two, not-three, not-four, not-five, not-six, not-seven, not-eight, not-nine, not-ten. And having not counted them in that fashion, you can conclude that there are ten people, without having counted them.

This brings up an excellent question: what does it mean that we shouldn’t count the people, but we should have ten of them? Why is it better to pray with ten people than with nine, but bad to count people? Why should Israel be an uncountable thing, but we have an entire scriptural book of Numbers that talks about a Divinely mandated enumeration? Are the parshah and the haftarah contradicting each other?

This was Saturday morning’s service. That afternoon, we started to see the thing the New York Times did for Sunday morning’s paper: the entire front page (and some of the interior) was devoted to a listing of names of people who died after contracting COVID-19 in this country. The names were listed along with places and for many of them a few words about their life, their job, their passions, achievements, connections, experiences or loves. It was an incredibly moving thing, a successful (in my arrogant opinion) attempt to mark the week that a hundred thousand Americans were known to have died from this plague. To try to convey simultaneously the scale of the disaster for our nation with the individual losses suffered.

The thing is: the numbers are important. We can’t make good plans without good data, and good data will aggregate numbers together. The line on the graph is really important, and it’s just numbers. The people are souls, and every one of them has a divine spark, and it’s really important not to think of them as numbers. It’s also crucial to count them and to think of them as data points, and scrub away all those irrelevant details.

And… that’s it. There are these two things in tension: counting and not-counting. Aggregating data involves losing the individual specifics; focusing on individual specifics prevents us from understanding the data. I’m not going to resolve that tension in this blog note. I’m not going to resolve the tension between the parshah and the haftarah, and I’m not going to resolve it on the front page of the New York Times, either. Maybe you can.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

1 thought on “Numbers, numbers, numbers

  1. Michael

    I never knew about not counting the people for a minyan. I did grow up in a Conservative tradition with not announcing the number of the day of the Omer before reciting it, and instead saying “yesterday was the n-1th day of the Omer” and letting people draw their own conclusions. It threw me when a recent Reform service simply announced the n.

    But the counting of the minyan has made me wince for years. The exclusion of those who are intentionally present to worship with us but who do not count because of gender (when I was young) or age or formal affiliation. The inclusion of those who pop in for the count but are not meaningfully present. When I see them counting noses and know they are incorrectly counting my wife’s nose, how do I reconcile the desire for a correct count with the distinct unwelcoming of correcting the misimpression? Who bears the badly shared responsibility for speaking or silence?

    The answer, of course, is to have so many more than 10 that a count would be absurd, so we need exclude no one from the count. And yet so many of the services in my life have been on the cusp, and I don’t know when I will be able to say Kaddish.

    And now the public health limit of 10 at a service that some states have implemented. You can have a minyan as long as there are no children, no non-Jewish partners no matter how much they want to be there. You can have no more than a minyan, and must turn away anyone more. You must plan and exclude and how much more equitable and equable to close the doors entirely. So we close the doors, at our synagogue, at my wife’s church, at so many places where we desperately want to come together and cannot. Because when one dies it is as if the whole world has died, and the whole world has already died 100,000 times. Because we were all missing at the Red Sea, and we were all missing at Sinai, and we were all missing when we entered the Promised Land, and we will all be missing when redemption comes.


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