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Jewish Journal

Counting the Days

Parshat Bamidbar (Numbers 1:1-4:20)

by Rabbi Michael Gotlieb

May 24, 2001 | 8:00 pm

Sunday evening the Jewish world begins its celebration of Shavuot (which literally means weeks). In preparation for the holiday, the Torah orders us to count 49 days (seven weeks) from the second night of Passover until the festival's start.

As the Bible states, "On [the 50th day] a holy gathering shall be announced" (Leviticus 23:21). Originally the day marked the end of the spring barley harvest and the beginning of the summer's wheat harvest. Not until the destruction of the Second Temple did Shavuot emerge as the festival we observe today, one that celebrates the giving of the Torah.

During the time that leads up to Shavuot, each day is accompanied by its own numeric blessing. The ageless advice of the psalmist adds further importance to the 49-day count. "Number our days," he teaches, "so that we may attain a heart of wisdom" (Psalm 90:12).

In this week's Torah portion, Bamidbar, the people of Israel are instructed by God to engage in a different counting. Moses is told to number each Israelite male over the age of 20 (Numbers 1:2).

Rashbam (Rabbi Shmuel ben Meir, from 12th-century France, grandson of the biblical and Talmudic commentator Rashi) argues that the reason for the count was to determine how many Israelite men were old enough to serve in the military. To Rashbam, the census was taken for pragmatic reasons, given that the Israelites would soon be entering Canaan.

On the other hand, Ramban (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman from 13th-century Spain and Israel) suggests the reason for the tally was to teach Moses the invaluable lesson that each member of the Israelite tribe represented an individual. In other words, Moses wasn't leading a group of people; he was leading a group of ones.

God didn't need to count the Israelites; He knew how many they numbered. It wasn't for God's benefit.

The lesson of this week's Torah portion, along with the lesson found in marking the days that lead up to Shavuot, is that we count for our benefit. All of us need to number our days and, in the process, make sure that each person we meet or associate with is viewed as if he or she is an individual and has infinite, divine worth.

Life is made more treasurable because a holy spirit is in it. The challenge we face is to be able to recognize that spirit. Without being able to see the divine in every human being, groups of people are nothing more than aggregate amounts. One person is no different than the other, and life is ultimately reduced to statistics.

Similarly, a day can be like any other day of the week, or it can be transformed into something sacred. There is no intrinsic worth to time. Only when it is viewed as a gift from God can time be fully savored and appreciated.

But, like Moses, we need to look more deeply into the days of our lives and the people with whom we share those days. Like Moses, we need to be ever vigilant in transforming time into something holy and seeing the holy in the times we share with our fellow human beings.

By counting, ironically, Moses figured out what truly counts -- and so it is with us.

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