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Parshat B’midbar, Who Counts?  Who is Counted?  For What It’s Worth, May 22, 2020
By Rabbi Jamie Gibson

A long time ago, practically another lifetime, I was privileged to play tenor sax in the University of Michigan Marching Band.  I was only 17 years old and had no idea what a big deal this was, but then again, I was from Minnesota, not Michigan. 

When, that first week of freshman year I told people I was in the band, they were astonished.  “You know, that is one of the best bands in the world, don’t you?”  Well, I didn’t.  I had played in my high school band and served as drum major my senior year.  It was one of those bizarre things where I simply applied for admission to the band and they let me in.  (I would never get in these days – you have to be in the music school even to apply).

Michigan went 10-0 in the regular season, actually beating Ohio State, which they don’t do much anymore.  Which meant we were going to the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California.

We were famous for our half time shows and intricate formations we would produce on the field while playing music at a pretty high quality level.  Those formations were meticulously plotted out on sheets by hand (no computer help back 1971) so everyone in band studied these like they were sacred texts.

There were 7 tenor saxes in the 215 member band and I remember that for the Rose Bowl half-time show I was number 165.  My job was to find my dot on the chart, find where that dot was supposed to appear on the field and get to that spot.  If I didn’t make it, the formation was broken and there would be hell to pay.  Our Band leader, who had once been a Marine Drill Sergeant, told us that we had better be standing on our spot at the right moment of the music, no excuses, or he’d have our number, and…

He left the “and”…up to our imaginations.

He had 3 rules:  To be early is to be on time.  Guard and care for your instrument like it was your child.  Never forget your number.  I broke one of his rules.  At the Rose Bowl.  And lived to tell the tale.

Oh, numbers…

In this week’s parsha, B’midbar, we’re told of the need to count the community, head by head.

Numbers 1.2:  “Take a census of the whole Israelite community by the clans of its ancestral houses, according to the names, every male, head by head.”

שְׂא֗וּ אֶת־רֹאשׁ֙ כָּל־עֲדַ֣ת בְּנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל לְמִשְׁפְּחֹתָ֖ם לְבֵ֣ית אֲבֹתָ֑ם בְּמִסְפַּ֣ר שֵׁמ֔וֹת כָּל־זָכָ֖ר לְגֻלְגְּלֹתָֽם׃

Our Sages were conflicted as to whether or not a census was a good thing.  Being counted is always for someone else’s purpose.  In the Torah, it was for everything from the collection of the ½ shekel head tax paid by everyone (think pennies) to  upcoming service in the army, and everything in between.

These different purposes are reflected how our Sages interpret this call for a census in the Torah:

Rashbam:  …from this point on the Israelites were headed for the land of Israel, and all males over the age of 20 were enlisted in the army for that purpose…

Tur Ha-Aroch“take a census of the whole community.” Rashi on Numbers 31,26, explains the use of the expression שאו ראש, as “take a count of the heads,” [in the sense of according value to the head of each person so counted.]

Da’at Z’keinim:  Here we find that the number counted in each tribe is listed separately, and they were listed according to families, i.e. each individual was of consequence. (including women and children, Ed.)

Shnei Luchot Ha-BritEveryone should become aware of his personal value by having been counted. He was encouraged to think that everything depended on his personal activity and contribution.

Mei Ha-Shiloach*:  In fact, all of Israel is without number, and what is written "the number will be" is said over every single specific soul of Israel, that every single one will be counted, that is, something of consequence in the counting, and important in the eyes of the Holy One of Blessing…”

Ramban: …each person would pass before Moses and Aaron. They counted the people by going from house to house, in the process learning about each family and how they lived. It was not enough for Moses to know the total number of the Jewish people. Moses now had an added obligation… to know every Jew by name.

We sometimes see numbers and forget the people behind them.  Right now we are dealing with the worst pandemic in more than a century.  And we can’t avert our eyes from the daily rising sickness and death totals:

As of today, the Covid-19 cases in our country add up to:








But every one of those +95,000 deaths was a human being, an entire universe of life, someone who was a gift of God, worthy of caring, honor and dignity.  Let’s look at 3 of the lives of these 95.000 dead, courtesy of the NYT (with some editing):


Wilson Jerman, aged 91.  Served 11 US Presidents as a butler:


Mr. Jerman moved to Washington in 1955 and catered parties in Georgetown before being hired at the White House. He was intensely proud of his job, his granddaughter said, and he went to work every day perfectly groomed, with freshly polished shoes and suspenders.


Presidents of both parties appreciated his service and discretion. Jimmy Carter asked Mr. Jerman to work for him after he left the White House, Ms. Garrett said. He was also close to the Bushes.


Stephen W. Rochon was in charge of the White House residence from 2007 to 2011…He called Mr. Jerman “the most gentle-natured person that I knew.”


Mr. Jerman retired under Mr. Obama.  Michelle Obama said, “With his kindness and care, Wilson Jerman helped make the White House a home for decades of first families, including ours…his service to others — his willingness to go above and beyond for the country he loved and all those whose lives he touched — is a legacy worthy of his generous spirit.”


Sally Jane Rowley, Aged 88, Freedom Rider:


Sally’s birth name was Sara, but she preferred Sally. She found it more fitting for her free-spirited approach to life, which involved fighting for civil rights, living as a street artist and learning how to fly.


“My grandmother was a one-of-a-kind person,” said Anika Pasilis, 20, a journalism student at the University of Arizona. “She despised injustice and cherished freedom, for herself and for others.”


Ms. Rowley died of Covid-19 on May 14 after the virus spread into the Tucson, Ariz., nursing home where she lived, Ms. Pasilis said. She was 88. Her family said their goodbyes through a window at the facility.


Ms. Rowley was born on Oct. 20, 1931. While working as a secretary in New York in the early 1960s, Ms. Rowley joined the freedom riders, the civil rights activists who rode interstate buses into the South to challenge segregationist policies. She was arrested in Jackson, Miss., in 1961 and served time in the Mississippi State Penitentiary.  She became a street artist in San Francisco and Mexico where she lived until she fell ill with Coronavirus.

Philip Kahn, Aged 100, Decorated Marine in WWII:

The 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic took his twin a more than a century ago.  Aware of the irony of dying during a pandemic, he said history repeats itself. A family member called the brothers “pandemic bookends.”

Philip Kahn believed that history repeats itself, a truism that has hit home for his family in extraordinary fashion.


His twin brother, Samuel, died as an infant during the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918-19. Now Mr. Kahn himself has died of the coronavirus. He was over 100.


“He was a very healthy 100,” Warren Zysman, one of his grandsons, said in a phone interview. “He watched the news, he was completely aware of the pandemic. When he started coughing, he knew he might have it, and he knew the irony of what was going on.


Philip served in an Army aerial unit in the Pacific during World War II, participating in the Battle of Iwo Jima and later in firebombing raids over Japan. He also helped make aerial surveys after the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He earned two bronze stars.


Mr. Zysman added: “And he would say, ‘Warren my boy, I told you history always repeats itself. We could have been much better prepared for this.’”


These are not numbers.  These are lives. 

Even as we honor those who have died we must strive to prevent others from dying unnecessarily.  It seems our federal government thinks we are on the path to returning to normal.  I am not alone in saying that I believe the words of Dr. Anthony Fauci more than any other government official.  We will, we must continue to wash our hands, distance ourselves and wear masks in public to stop this rising tide of death.  We must decide, you and me, that we not add to these numbers of death.


They are not numbers.  They are lives. 

As much as we long to be together at Temple Sinai, even as houses of worship are declared “essential services,” we will not gather in person until we are certain, based on science, not mere hope, that we can do so safely.  Our entire Temple Sinai leadership agrees.  We must decide, you and me, to remain apart for now, that we not add to these numbers of death.


They are not numbers.  They are lives. 

These are enough lives to fill 1 ½ Heinz Stadiums, every seat filled with a precious human life, an irreplaceable life.  Can you even imagine that?  Every seat in that huge arena, with hopes, dreams and fears, snuffed out by this disease.  So we will make phone calls instead of visits, pray by Zoom, sing through FaceBook and learn by webinar to avoid either contracting or transmitting this deadly virus.  We must decide to make the most of our separation, so we neither add to the death toll nor die a death of the spirit from loneliness.


Our Torah speaks of counting and numbers.  We, like our Sages, speak of lives.  Your life and mine.  Infinitely precious and completely irreplaceable.  Beyond value, you and me.  Numbers can and will be forgotten.  It is our sacred charge not to forget lives.


I forgot my number at the Rose Bowl, of course.  My excuse?  I was running 104 degree fever that day.  I was late getting to my position on the field for halftime and I could see our Band Director’s eyes boring into me from 40 yards away.  And when I stumbled off the field at the end of the show, he pulled me roughly and started to scream in my face. 


Suddenly he reached up and felt my forehead.  “You’re burning up!” he said.  I nodded and said, “I’m so sorry for messing up out there, sir.  Number 165 was in the wrong place at the wrong time.”  The anger drained from his face and he said, “You are not your number.  You are…(he didn’t know my name).” 


“James Gibson,” I filled in.  “You are James Gibson, not number 165.  Go and take care of yourself.  You are not a number,” he said again. 


None of us is.   We are precious gifts of God, with names, with lives, with hopes, with flaws, with dreams and limitless worth.  Remember that next time you read death toll from the virus.  They are gone, but you are here.  Be the soul you are, not a number on the list.  A soul.  A precious soul.  A beloved, precious soul.

Tue, June 25 2024 19 Sivan 5784