By: Rabbi Jessica Lott

This week we begin to read the book of Bamidbar, the 4th book of the Torah, which, in English, is called Numbers. This is because the first instruction God gives is for Moses and Aaron to conduct a census.

The Israelites have come to the point in their wanderings in the wilderness and in their formation as a community that it makes sense to get a sense of who is actually there. They left Egypt in a mass of confusion, excitement and doubt. They have been a traveling nomadic encampment in the wilderness, they experienced the dramatic chaos of revelation at Mt Sinai, and now, it’s a moment of self-assessment and declaration of self. 

It begins: “God spoke to Moses in the wilderness on Sinai in the Tent of Meeting on the first day of the second month in the second year following the exodus front he Land of Egypt, saying, ‘Raise up the heads of the entire nation of the Children of Israel by the clans of its ancestral houses, according to the number of names, every male, head by head.’”(Bamidbar 1:1-2)

They were to count “Every male age 20 and up, all who are able to bear arms.” (1:3) 

It goes on to list the name of the head of each clan and the number of able-bodied men over 20 associated with him. “All who were enrolled came to 603,550” (1:46)

The Torah uses the interesting phrase that they should be counted “according to the number of names.” The Malbim, a 19th century commentator, taught that this means that everyone said his name out loud and wrote it in a book, and afterward they counted the names and knew how many people there were.

The names are presumably being collected for conscription, in order to form a military that can protect the people on their journey and especially once they enter the land. And so it is not surprising, but still noteworthy that the names of women and children and people with disabilities do not appear in this accounting of who counts. A census is a practical tool for a specific purpose, but it also a mode of establishing and enforcing power. So there is inherent possibility and inherent danger in taking a census.

That number – 603,550 – which we know from the outset is not totally inclusive, is immediately used not to assemble troops, but to assign a plot of land to each clan according to their size. The number is taken as authoritative when we know that – due exactly to how it is set up – it is knowingly, intentionally excluding people it knows exist. Biblical scholars extrapolate to an estimated 2 million people traveling en masse through the Sinai Peninsula for 40 years. (Milgrom, JPS Torah Commentary)

Cantor Rachel Stock Spilker wrote about this parsha (The Torah: A Women’s Commentary) “When we read between the lines, when we ask who is not included, we can see how the untold stories of the unmentioned people matter too. For instance, what about the woman who might have wished to fight? Or how about the 19-year-old man, just a month short of his 20th birthday, eager to serve God and his people? And how about the 23 year old male Israelite who can count the right numbers of years but not the right number of limbs because one of his was lost in a childhood accident? And the pregnant wife of a soldier who calculates the number of weeks until her baby arrives, knowing that the baby’s father’s days may be numbered?”

I am struck immediately by the fact that we in the United States are also taking a census right now. Our census is a practical tool, but also a mode of establishing and enforcing power. So there is inherent possibility and inherent danger in taking a census. The US Census claims to count every person living in the 50 United States and five U.S. territories.  And we use the numbers obtained through the US census process to determine the amount of funding communities receive for hospitals, schools, and public services, and how many seats each state is allocated in the House of Representatives and the Electoral College. The demographic data are used by businesses to determine, for example, where to build new supermarkets and by emergency responders to locate injured people after natural disasters.

The Census Bureau’s mandate is – unlike the Israelite census – to include every person living in the U.S. — regardless of citizenship or immigration status. Some of you may have followed with interest the Trump administration’s insistence that a question about citizenship be included. Their claim was that knowing how many and who the non-citizens among us were, could be used to better enforce protections against discrimination of racial and language minorities through the Voting Rights Act. But the undocumented residents of our communities know that in the counting also lies inherent danger of being identified, hunted down, separated from their families, and deported. The size of the number of immigrants can be leveraged as a tool for representation and appropriate access to resources AND it can be wielded as a weapon to threaten their rights and their safety.

According to research from the Urban Institute, black communities across the United States have been undercounted for decades in censuses. The undercount is an acute problem for black men and children younger than 5. Researchers estimated that in 1990, the net undercount for black children hovered around 8 percent, while that of the nonblack population was closer to 3 percent. This affects federal funding allocations to critical programs that are supposed to serve them, like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program (TANF), and the National School Lunch Program.

The US Census does not ask about religion, but for many years the organized Jewish community conducted its own National Jewish Population Study. And just like in the US Census, and just like in the census in Bamidbar, this census is a practical tool, but also a mode of establishing and enforcing power. And each count contains inherent possibility and inherent danger. About a year ago, four researchers in the Bay Area published a report that outlined how Jews of Color have also been systematically undercounted in our local and national population studies (Counting Inconsistencies). How “grave inconsistencies” in the questions and the collection of data about American Jews’ racial backgrounds mean that we “know little about the composition and size of the population of Jews of Color” in the United States but their new analysis approximated that Jews of color comprise at least 12 to 15% of the American Jewish population. 

There was an article published last week in eJewishPhilanthropy (How Many Jews of Color Are There?) and The Forward that called into question those numbers and suggested that a number more like 6% is probably more accurate. Jewish facebook exploded with commentary. And Jews of Color were hurt – what was the purpose of emphatically trying to invalidate research that includes them? A sign-on letter organized by an initiative called #JOCscount states, “We agree that the Jewish community needs significantly more research to better understand its racial, ethnic, and cultural diversity. But we do not believe in using outdated or cherry-picked data to build a case for why supporting Jews of Color depends upon a numeric threshold. The fact that Jews of Color experience racism consistently in Jewish spaces demonstrates the urgent need for diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice work – regardless of how many Jews of Color exist or where they live. ” 

What the authors in this latest piece missed was most the critical successful element that this week’s parsha teaches us about the inherent possibility of taking a census.

The Children of Israel were counted head by head, they each stated their own name, perhaps because they were all individuals who had recently been invisible. These people – our people – had lived all of their lives to this point as slaves in an environment of constant oppression. In Egypt they had been told they had no individual worth whatsoever, they were unseen. But now, they merit an individual count, by name and by family. Not a single family was to be forgotten. They got to state their genealogy back to the original twelves sons of Israel, and claim a place in this new old nation. And with all its flaws, and all the dangers, this census may also have been a way of rehabilitating a marginalized people and restoring to them a sense of self-worth and pride. A census is a practical tool for a specific purpose, but it is also a mode of establishing and enforcing power. So there is inherent danger, and inherent possibility in talking about Numbers.

Jessica Lott is Associate VP of Education at Hillel International and the incoming Campus Rabbi at Northwestern University (and most importantly a Mishkanite and Mensch Academy mama)