What does all of this mean? Some thoughts on numbers following this week's ordination ceremonies
Rabbi Rafi Cohen ©
We live in a world that is often and easily reduced to numbers. I get it! I work in Rabbinical School admissions, a field that is numbers driven. Last month I took part in Walk MS: Westchester 2023, raising money toward a cure for Multiple Sclerosis. I surpassed my fundraising goal (albeit a very modest one) and immediately posted to social media (hello Instagram and FB!). I’ve also shared the results and personal statistics in my acknowledgement letters to donors because these numerical results convey impact. But do they tell the full story? Do numbers relate everything we need to know?
The participants in the walk express unified purpose, a commitment to finding a cure and caring for those with MS, but they also have individual, often deeply personal, reasons. My reasons for walking were to honor the memory of my late mother-in-law who had MS as well as other family members affected by Multiple Sclerosis. For ten years, my wife worked at a comprehensive Multiple Sclerosis center.
These narratives, and others like them, can be obscured by our focus on numbers. I don’t want in any way to diminish the strength of numbers; in Judaism we rely on numbers for a minyan and only with a minyan can we include devarim sh’bkedusha – holy matters – a halacha derived from Leviticus 23:32. “I [God] shall be sanctified amidst the Children of Israel.” Numbers are important and yet they can sometimes obfuscate other matters we need to take note of.
Parshat Bemidbar addresses a similar phenomenon with the instructions of the census recorded in the opening chapter. “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.” (Number 1:1-1:2). The word “count” is not used, rather, the text is translated to “lift the head of the whole community of Israel.” From this we derive the instructions to “take a census.” The numbers that follow are consequential, however they do not tell us the whole story and there is what to learn from the idea that rather than simply count the people, the instruction is to “lift” or in a couple of verses later, “record”.
Commentators read into the text saying that the order and organization of the large encampment are important, and the strength of the People of Israel comes from the large assembly. We need to view “the whole [as] greater than the sum of its parts.” The numbers are a statement of impact, but they are not the whole story. The narrative is of a unified purpose and commitment. There’s a sense of caution around too much of a focus on numbers lest we weaken the importance of individuals in the community by reducing them to numbers and statistics.
As I alluded to earlier, my work is numbers driven and paying attention to the numbers is part of the story. Building a cohort that is strong and comprised of individuals who will contribute to a collective body and stand out on their own accomplishments is a goal. Different people show up with their respective stories; together we hope to look past the numbers and see their contributions great and small.
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In Judaism, each day begins at sundown of the previous day. Shabbat, being no different, begins Friday evening. I love those moments - as rushed as they may be or as serene as we strive to make them - that escort us into Shabbat. We begin Shabbat by lighting candles (2 in our home) and by doing so we add a measure of spirit that I believe comes from God and those around us. I hope these words help you as they have helped me.