Then the LORD said to Moses, “When you take a census of the Israelites to count them, each one must pay the LORD a ransom for his life at the time he is counted. Then no plague will come on them when you number them.”—Exodus 30:11–12
The Torah portion for this week is Ki Tisa, which means “when you raise up,” from Exodus 30:11—34:35, and the Haftorah is from 1 Kings 18:20–39.
The murder of millions of people during the Holocaust didn’t happen spontaneously. The process of extermination was systematic and deliberate. It included a phase of dehumanization in order to break the spirits of the victims. The Nazis achieved this by placing people in cattle cars, feeding them subhuman food, and most notably, by giving them a number. Upon entering many Nazi camps, people were given numerical tattoos, taking away their names and turning them into a number.
In this week’s Torah reading, Israel experienced a very different kind of counting. The reading begins, “When you take a census of the Israelites.” God commanded Moses to count the people of Israel. But unlike the counting done by the Nazis, this numbering expressed the value of the people. The Hebrew words for “When you take a census” are “Ki tisa.” Literally, these words mean “when you raise up.” When Moses counted the people, it would elevate them, not diminish them.
The Sages compare God’s desire to count His people to a person’s joy at counting his or her money. God rejoices over each soul the way a person might delight in each dollar. This also explains why Moses himself had to do the counting and not some clerk. This was an important job for God’s most trusted servant. When an Israelite appeared before Moses to be counted, the message that person received was, “You matter! You count!”
It’s easy to think that we don’t matter that much to God. After all, there are more than seven billion people on our planet, and we are just one of them. But God wants us to know that we are not just a number. God knows and cares for each and every one of us. He rejoices at our existence and delights in counting us as one of His.
On Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, tradition teaches that God judges every living creature. In Jewish teaching, this is depicted in a very vivid manner. We say, “All mankind will come before you like sheep in Meron.” Mount Meron is a mountain in the Galilee that is shaped like an “M.” Anyone or any animal who wants to pass through the narrow middle can only do so one at a time. This is how God looks at every individual – one at a time.
We may be one of God’s seven billion children, but to Him we are like His only one. And like an only child, we are cherished, beloved, protected, and guided. So as you go through your day today, remember that no matter what anyone says or how anybody else makes you feel, you matter. You do count, and your value is more than you will ever know.
With prayers for shalom, peace,
Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein
Founder and President