42. Ki Tissah II - THE CENSUS

THE TORAH relates how the first census was taken of our people in the desert for a lofty reason--to help build the Sanctuary as a meeting place for the people and God. The admonition was that each individual was to give "half a shekel ... a tribute to the Lord" (Exod. 30: 13). The Torah stresses that this model of counting must be used "that there be no plague among them when they number them" (ibid.).

In a sermon delivered in Antwerp some sixty years ago, Rabbi Avigdor Amiel, of blessed memory, pointed out the sharp difference between the method of ascertaining the number of Jews in a given community a century ago and the one used in his day. A hundred years ago it was a relatively simple matter. One could go to the local kosher butcher and: find out. Seldom would a Jewish family buy non-kosher meat. To check the figures he obtained from the butcher, the census-taker could go to the sexton of the synagogue who would tell him the number of Jews who attended services daily, and on Sabbaths and Festivals. Even the poor tailor or shoemaker would find time to go to shule. He would leave a sign consisting of the first four letters of the Hebrew alphabet on the door ro indicate that he was attending services at the synagogue. The aleph, bet, gimmel, dalet were the abbreviated form for the Yiddish phrase ich bin gegangen davenen, "I went to pray."

"Today," he bewailed, "when one wishes to take a census of our people, the butcher's figures will not do. for there are so many Jews who do not buy kosher meat; nor will the figures of the sexton be of great help, for thousands of Jews do not go to the synagogue to pray. The best, and perhaps only, way for the census-taker is to get the figures from Chevra Kadisha, the Sacred Society, that cares for the Jewish dead, or from the files of Jewish cemeteries. Following reliable actuarial figures for the number of people per thousand who die each year, one can calculate the number of Jews there is in a community. And that is precisely what the Torah wanted to avoid. It therefore admonished, velo yihyeh bahem negef bifkod otam,'that there be no plague among them when they number them.' God wished that the Jews to be counted would 'give for the ransom of their souls unto the Lord.' Only those who evinced a willingness to give of their means and help create a living and vibrant Jewish life were to be included in the census. Dead Jews, those whose only identification with their people and their religion is via negef, the Chevra Kadisha and the cemetery, are unworthy to be numbered in the household of Israel."

If this was true sixty years ago when Rabbi Amiel said it, how much more is this analysis applicable today! As a matter of fact, even the cemetery statistics are no longer reliable for our times. There are Jews today who, when they die, repose in non-Jewish funeral parlors and are interred in non-sectarian cemeteries That explains why census-taking of Jews these days is such a difficult chore.

While no exact figures are available, the educated guess is that there are about six million Jews residing in the United States today. Wonderful isn't it? But when we begin to think not in terms of how many people there are but on how many Jews we can count, vert nisht goot oifen hartzen, causes one heartache and distress.

Thirty years ago when the State of Israel came into being, there were more Jews in the boroughs of Manhattan or Brooklyn than in all of Israel. But as far as the impact on the history of our people is concerned, any fair-minded individual will agree that the 600,000 Jews in little Israel in 1948 had a greater significance than the millions of our beloved brethren who reside in New York, London or Paris.

What good is the six million figure of American Jewry when we know from past experience that in an et tzarah, in an emergency, we can count only on about a million--if on that many! What good is a large group if when it comes to responsible and dignified Jewish living only a small segment of that number can be counted!

The story is told of a man in a certain community who misbehaved and brought shame and dishonor on his fellow Jews. After reprimanding him sharply, the Gabbai said to him in plain mameh lashon, "Moshe, we should really slap you in the face. Bur you're lucky, for to us you are a faceless Jew."

Ah, how many faceless Jews we have! People who have hands and feet and stomachs, but are faceless!

That explains why the Torah uses repeatedly the phrase, seu et rosh bnei yisrael, which in its literal translation is "Count the heads of the children of Israel." Moses was ordered to enumerate only those who possessed heads and faces. Otherwise they were to be considered ciphers in the census of their people.

The heart of the matter is, therefore, this: The people who are to be counted assume importance only if they are willing to be counted upon and relied upon to do something wothwhile with their lives; who are eager to contribute toward the good of their people and the furtherance of the living ideals and teachings of Judaism.

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