Parashat B’midbar Sinai: Counting and the Severity of Compassion

Parashat B’midbar Sinai: Counting and the Severity of Compassion

(d’var Torah delivered by Rabbi J.B. Sacks on June 7, 2024)

The Book of Numbers begins with a head count of the entire Jewish People, before they depart from their Sinai encampment, on the way to the Promised Land. Moses organizes this massive endeavor, with the help of representatives from each of the Tribes, and in the end comes to an approximate count of 600,000 people who make up the Israelite people. So what we have here is the conducting of a census.

We Americans know about the taking of a national census and the problems such an undertaking engenders. One of the big problems is reach. How do we ensure that everyone is counted? The U.S. census has historically undercounted populations, particularly communities of color and immigrants. For the 2020 census, a controversial “citizen question” was considered, creating a risk that non-citizens, who had been counted in prior censuses, would be discouraged from participating. There is a lot at stake in these numbers, since they help determine the allocation of resources and the right to political representation. These numbers reset the country’s political map, determining how many congressional seats and Electoral College votes each state gets for the next ten years.

Now, three and one-half years later, it is clear that what was feared has in fact occurred. According to data reported by the New York Times:[1]

Although the bureau did not say how many people it missed entirely, they were mostly people of color, disproportionately young ones. The census missed counting 4.99 of every 100 Hispanics, 5.64 of every 100 Native Americans and 3.3 of every 100 African Americans. In contrast, for every 100 residents counted, the census wrongly added 1.64 non-Hispanic whites and 2.62 ethnic Asians.

We should ask: What is our obligation when preparing to undertake a census, and what is our obligation to the uncounted? If a census is meant to capture a moment in time, and to help paint a picture of a society, the very way we count and address the shortcomings of our census process determines not just who we are, but also who we want to be as a society.

The very idea of a democracy, a government in which supreme power is invested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through representation, underscores the importance of efforts to ensure a fair and inclusive census and policies that empower the uncounted. The organization Fair Count aims to “build long-term power in communities that have been historically undercounted in the decennial census, underrepresented at the polls, and whose communities are often torn apart in redistricting.”

And what about our biblical census? Well, a midrash[2] famously teaches that just as there were 600,000 Jews at Sinai, there are 600,000 in the Torah. This beautiful midrash has given rise to countless sermons about the value of each individual: just as a Torah requires each and every little letter present and whole in order to be complete, so, too, our community needs every single one of us.

However, we have a problem. The Torah scroll does not contain 600,000 letters. In fact, not even close to it! The Torah contains about half that number.[3] The rabbis surely knew that their count was way off. How, then, can we understand the midrash?

The mystical tradition has long taught that the black letters of the Torah scroll only make up half the story; the other half–and, potentially, the more revealing truths–are contained in the white spaces that accompany each letter. Just as in conversation where what is not said is often more important than what is actually spoken aloud, the white spaces that surround the black letters are equally vital to understanding what the Torah is trying to teach us. Counting the white spaces, along with the black letters, we arrive at 600,000. The midrash can make sense!

Yet, another, more troubling contradiction lurks below the surface of this text. When the Torah records that 600,000 stood at Sinai, it is again only telling half the story. As feminist scholars like Judith Plaskow, Rachel Adler, and others have taught–a closer look at the text reveals that twice that number participated in the Mount Sinai encounter. The Torah records only the names and stories of the men; the women who stood aside them have been erased from our counting. Again, half is visible and half invisible.

Just as our understanding of Torah is only complete when we count both the black letters and the white spaces, our understanding of ourselves is only complete when we notice the whole community. That means really seeing those who have traditionally counted and those who have been excluded, who have historically faded into the background like the white spaces.

In fact, the term used in our parashah for taking a census is se’u rosh, which literally means “lift up the head.” This strongly suggests that “the act of counting should lift people’s heads, and help them feel that their lives and contributions have dignity and meaning.”[4] (Salkin 160).

The importance of counting is found in the Torah, but continues throughout our Tradition. The Hebrew title of our series on Graceful Aging this past year was from a verse in Psalms:[5] Limnot Yameinu Kein Hoda, “Teach us to number our days so that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” Yes, each person counts, but we must strive to make sure they do.

The importance of counting is found more contemporaneously in a poem by Yehuda Amichai.[6]

Count them.
Yes. You can count them.

They are not like the sand upon the seashore.

They are not like the stars of the heavens in multitude.
They are lonely people.
On the corner and in the street.

Count them.

See them
seeing the sky through ruined houses.
Find a way out of the stones and come back.

What will you come back to?

But count them, for they do their time in dreams
and they walk around outside

and their hopes, unbandaged,
are gaping, and they will die of them.

Count them.
Too soon have they learned to read the terrible handwriting on the wall.

To read and write upon other walls.

And the feast goes on in silence.

Count them.

Be present for they have already used up all the blood

and there’s still not enough,
as in a dangerous operation,

where one is exhausted
and beaten down like ten thousand.

For who’s judge and what’s judgment
unless it be to the full extent of Night
and the full severity of compassion.

Amichai’s poem, like the midrash, does not highlight the heroes we usually see and promote. Rather, it focuses upon individuals who are typically not seen or counted. This poem challenges us with a sense of urgency to view the uncounted with the “full severity of compassion.” The “full severity of compassion” demands that we see other people as deserving of decency, rights, and the feeling that “their lives and contributions have dignity and meaning.”

It’s a lesson that I think we here at CAH have worked hard on and accomplished so much. Here, everyone who comes through our doors matters, whether they are Jewish or not, whether they join or not, whether they know Hebrew or not. Here, everyone’s voice is welcome in our discussions, at our meetings, in our deliberations.

This understanding that what matters is the “severity of our compassion,” and that we offer it constantly to each other and ourselves, is one of the many lessons I will take with me as I go. Your lives and your engagement here at CAH have meant so much to me, and I thank you for lifting me up and helping me feel that my life and contributions here have dignity and meaning.

May “the severity of compassion” continue to be part of Am HaYam’s ethos.


Shabbat Shalom.


[1] Michael Wines and Maria Cramer, “2020 Census Undercounted Hispanic, Black and Native American Residents,” New York Times, March 10, 2022.

[2] Numbers Rabbah 2:13.

[3] The exact number is 304,805.

[4] Salkin, Jeffrey K. The JPS B’nai Mitzvah Torah Commentary. Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 2017,  p. 110.

[5] Psalm 90:12

[6] Yehuda Amichai (1924-2000), remains an important Israeli poet and author. The translation, by Chana Bloch and Chana Kronfeld, can be found in Chana Kronfeld’s The Full Severity of Compassion: The Poetry of Yehuda Amichai. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2016.

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