Numbers: Be Careful When You Count

Posted on May 28, 2020 by Rabbi Arnold S. Gluck

Since ancient days Judaism has had an aversion to counting, especially to counting people. The basis for this is the idea that ascribing a number sets a limit. This is true of population assessments and also of longevity. As recently as a few generations ago, this sensitivity endured as a superstition among the first generations of Eastern European immigrants, who were reluctant to declare how old they were out of fear that doing so would signify the terminus of their lives.

The first sign of this fear of counting is found in Exodus 30:1, where the Israelites are instructed to conduct a census. Though it is clearly necessary for practical reasons, there is great concern that doing so will unleash a plague. To avoid this, the leaders employ the clever strategy of having each person to be enrolled present the symbolic sum of a half-shekel. These would be counted instead of the people while achieving the desired result.

Today we find ourselves counting people in the midst of a plague that is claiming myriad numbers of lives. Each day the news presents a tote board with the escalating count of those infected and those who have died of COVID-19. Like the census in the wilderness that was conducted by counting the half-shekels, we need to know these numbers. Life and death are at stake, and our actions must be guided by the real impact of our choices on their trajectory.

There is another very important side to counting people. Taking note of each individual makes it clear that every person counts – that they matter. The death toll from COVID-19 is not just a statistic. Each number represents a real person whose life is of infinite value and sanctity.

The loss of each and every one is a tragedy of immense proportion. This is the reason we must count these losses and do so in a way that does not reduce even a single human being to a mere statistic.

There are other types of counting that are going on during this crisis. Some are helpful and important, and others are problematic. One is the counting of supplies that are needed to treat the sick and prevent further infection. We need to know that the requisite number of masks and other forms of PPE are available, especially to keep the caregivers safe. We must know that we have an adequate supply of ventilators to try to save the critically ill. And returning to work and opening our economy requires that a sufficient number of tests are available and that there is an adequate number of people to do contact tracing. Assessing these numbers is critical.

What is less helpful, and maybe even damaging, is counting the number of days that we have been required to stay at home. Focusing on that number only elevates our stress and tests the limits of our patience by reminding us of the extent of our unhappy state. It does nothing to bring us closer to our liberation.

And there is another form of counting that is going on at this time. This period of isolation will include the entirety of the period in the Jewish calendar when we count the Omer, the annual recollection of the fifty days from our liberation from Egypt until the day we stood at Mt. Sinai to receive the Torah. Like these days of the pandemic crisis, that was a time of anxiety and uncertainty. We were free, but we were exposed to danger and deprivation. Water and food were scarce, scorpions and wild beasts threatened our safety. And there were even plagues during that frightful time.

During those fifty days no one (except God) knew how long that time would last and how it would end. As it unfolded it was a time of great hardship and trial that must have seemed interminable for our ancestors. Only when it ended was it possible to tell a tale of triumph that would endure for all time.

This current crisis will pass, and when it does (may it be soon!), that will be the time to look back and consider the number of days we maintained discipline and vigilance. Then we will be able to reflect on the good we accomplished and the lives we saved by taking the necessary precautions. Then we will recall the sacrifices we made and be able to take pride in our endurance and resilience. And from that time onward we will have a story to tell that will be valuable and instructive for our future, and for generations to come.

Until that time, let us draw strength and encouragement from the words of the psalmist:

“Look hopefully to God; let your heart be strong and of good courage; and look hopefully to God.”


Rabbi Arnold S. Gluck

Originally published in the May-June 2020 issue of the Shofar. For more issues of the Shofar, visit the Shofar archives.