The word Naso that gives its name to this week’s Torah portion (Numbers 4:21-7:89) is a verb with a range of meanings, among them: to lift, to carry, and to forgive. Here though, and elsewhere in the wilderness years, it is used, in conjunction with the phrase et rosh (“the head”) to mean “to count.” This is an odd way of speaking, because biblical Hebrew is not short of other verbs meaning to count. Why then not use one of these verbs? Why not simply say “count” instead of “lift the head”?
The ingenious response is from Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (z”l) who suggests that if we are each in the image of God, then every one of us has infinite value. We are each unique. Even genetically identical twins share only approximately 50 percent of their attributes. None of us is substitutable for any other. This may well be the single most important consequence of monotheism. Discovering God, singular and alone, our ancestors discovered the human individual, singular and alone.
This was simply not a value in the ancient world, nor is it one in tyrannical or totalitarian societies today. Most people were simply regarded as part of a mass: an army, a work force or a gang of slaves. What mattered was their total number, not their individual lives, their hopes and fears, their loves and dreams. That is the image we have of Egypt of the Pharaohs. It is how the Sages understood the builders of Babel. They said that if a brick fell from the tower they wept. If a worker fell and died, they paid no attention. Almost a hundred million people died in the twentieth century in Stalin’s Russia, Mao’s Communist China and Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge. We say of such regimes that people became “just numbers.” That is what the Torah is rejecting as a matter of supreme religious principle. At the very moment when one might be tempted to see people as “just numbers” – namely, when taking a census, as here – the Israelites were commanded to “lift people’s heads,” to raise their spirits, to make them feel they counted as individuals, not numbers in a crowd.
In the course of my life I have had several deep conversations with other clergy of other faiths, and there is one aspect of Judaism that they find very difficult to understand. The conversation usually turns to the central figure of Christianity, and I am often asked, do I believe that he was the son of God. “I do indeed,” I reply, “because we believe that every Jew is a son or daughter of God.” What Christianity applies to one figure in its faith, we apply to all. Where Christianity transcendentalize, Judaism democratizes. My conversation partners often think I am being evasive, finding a polite way to avoid answering the question. In fact, though, the opposite is true.
The Hassidic master Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Przysucha nicely summed up the Jewish approach to the value of a life. He said that we should each have two pockets. In one we should place a piece of paper with the words: “For my sake was the world created.” In the other should be the words: “I am but dust and ashes.” (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5) We are unique. We each have non-negotiable dignity and inalienable rights. But in and of ourselves we are nothing. Our greatness comes not from us but from God.
The point being made by the Torah, though, is that what matters is not how we see ourselves but how we see, and treat, and behave toward others. The world is not short of self-important people. What it is short of is those who make other people feel important – who “lift their heads.”
The challenge that emerges from the way the Torah describes taking a census is that we must “lift people’s heads.” Never let them feel merely a number. Make those you meet feel important, especially the people whom others tend to take for granted: the waiters at a communal meal; the woman who takes your coat in a cloakroom; the janitor in the synagogue; the people doing security duty; the caretaker; the most junior member of the office team, and so on. Make eye contact. Smile. Let them know you do not take them for granted. You appreciate them. They matter as individuals. For this is the life-changing idea: We are as important as we make other people feel.