Judging the Greatness of a People
The opening verses of this week’s Torah portion convey G-d’s instruction to Moses on how to count the Jewish people. When it is necessary to conduct a census, they are to be counted not in an ordinary manner, person by person. Rather, every member of the community should contribute a coin for charity, and then the coins should be counted.
What is the rational behind this instruction? Why the need to count the community in such a round-about fashion, rather than simply counting the people directly?
Two messages, we may suggest, are being conveyed here.
What are You Worth?
First, the Torah is suggesting that you are counted not based on who you are but on what you give. Your genuine value and worth spring forth from the love and kindness you impart to an aching heart.
Sir Moses Montefiore, a 19th century Jewish international diplomat and philanthropist, was once asked how much he was worth. The wealthy man thought for a while and named a figure. The other replied, “That can’t be right. By my calculation you must be worth many times that amount.”
Moses Montefiore’s reply was this: “You didn’t ask me how much I own. You asked me how much I’m worth. So I calculated the amount I have given to charity this year and that is the figure I gave you. You see,” he said, “we are worth what we are willing to share with others.”
Evaluating a people
There seems to be a one more vital message presented here, one that would reverberate throughout our long and painful history.
To appreciate the value and greatness of a people, the Torah is suggesting, you must study not the number of its bodies, but the depth of its contributions. Numbers can be deceiving. Large groups of people have often barely left a trace. On the other hand, there were times when small groups, when committed heart and soul to their goals and missions, have left an enormous impact, totally disproportionate to their numbers.
To appreciate the significance of Jewish existence, the Bible is telling us, you must study not its numbers: Jews never constituted more than one percent of society. Rather, you must examine the impact this little monotheistic group has had on the world. Other nations, cultures and civilizations enjoyed far greater numbers, larger territories and mightier armies. But nobody has left an impression on the very fabric of civilization as the relatively few and hunted down descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
As Thomas Cahill wrote in his national bestseller The Gifts of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels:
“Most of our best words in fact – new, adventure, surprise; unique individual, person, vocation; time, history, future; freedom, progress, spirit; faith, hope and justice -- are the gifts of the Jews... We can hardly get up in the morning or cross the street without being Jewish. We dream Jewish dreams and hope Jewish hopes.”
Nineteenth-century American president, John Adams, put it in these words:
"I will insist that the Hebrews have done more to civilize man than any other nation. If I were an atheist, and believed in blind eternal fate, I should still believe that chance had ordered the Jews to be the most essential instrument for civilizing the nations. If I were an atheist to the other sect, who believed or pretended to believe that all is ordered by chance, I should believe that chance has ordered the Jews to preserve and propagate to all mankind the doctrine of a supreme, intelligent, wise, almighty sovereign of the universe, which I believe to be the great essential principle of all morality, and consequently of all civilization."
And here are the words of the great Russian novelist, Leo Nikolaivitch Tolstoy:
"The Jew is that sacred being who has brought down from heaven the everlasting fire, and has illuminated with it the entire world. He is the religious source, spring and fountain out of which all the rest of the peoples have drawn their beliefs and their religions. The Jew is the emblem of eternity. He, who neither slaughter nor torture of thousands of years could destroy. He, who neither fire, nor sword, nor inquisition was able to wipe off the face of the earth. He, who was the first to produce the Oracles of G-d. He, who has been for so long the Guardian of Prophecy and has transmitted it to the rest of the world. Such a nation cannot be destroyed. The Jew is as everlasting as Eternity itself."
And, lastly, a passage by contemporary historian Paul Johnson in his bestseller “History of the Jews:”
"All the great conceptual discoveries of the intellect seem obvious and inescapable once they have been revealed, but it requires a special genius to formulate them for the first time. The Jew has this gift. To them we owe the idea of equality before the law, both divine and human; of the sanctity of life and the dignity of the human person; of the individual conscience and so of personal redemption; of the collective conscience and so of social responsibility; of peace as an abstract ideal and love as the foundation of justice, and many other items which constitute the basic moral furniture of the human mind. Without the Jews, it might have been a much emptier place."
So when G-d tells Moses to count the Jews, Moses might have said: "The numbers are really unimpressive." To which G-d responds: "Zeh Yetnu." Count not the bodies; count what they will give, what this people will contribute. Be proud of a people that will give the world the gift of hope, morality and redemption.
The Power to Love
Just as this is true concerning our national identity, it is true concerning every individual person. At times you may think to yourself, “I am worthless; I amount to nothing.”
Comes the Torah and says, that you on your own, cloistered in your vanity and egotism, may indeed amount to a small, futile creature, unworthy of counting (“If I am only for myself, what am I,” Hillel says in the Ethics of the Fathers). However, each of us has the power to contribute something to the world, to reach out to an individual in need. Each of us has the ability to touch a heart, to lift a spirit, to kindle a soul, to look a fellow human being in the eyes and say “I will be here for you.” You may be small indeed, but the love and light you can bring to another life through a simple gesture, a sincere “good morning,” or an act of goodness and kindness, cannot be counted enough. It can change the world, literally.