Bibles census reminds us to count those in our lives


Numbers 1:1-4:20

I Samuel 20:18-42

I have the great privilege of serving as a spiritual guide to others, practicing a form of spiritual counseling known as "Spiritual Direction." Every day I sit and listen in awed silence as people talk about their experience of the Divine in their lives. Often I am humbled by the invitation to eavesdrop, as it were, on another's conversation with the Holy One. I am regularly awestruck by the power of people's experiences of God. Day after day, I am blessed to witness a tiny segment of the infinite varieties of the human soul.

Of course, I could listen this way for the rest of my life and still only have seen a tiny fraction of the ways in which the Sacred moves in the world. For each person's experience of the Divine is absolutely unique, colored by a particular life story, a specific set of gifts and a distinctive way of receiving the raw data of human experience. Still, listening to what people share, hearing not only the words but the divine essence that underlies them, gives me a glimpse of the Creator.

That is precisely what we might hear if we listen closely to the beginning of the Book of Numbers. In an uninspiring piece of Torah at first glance, we find that God has ordered that a census be taken of the whole Israelite community, counting "by the clans of its ancestral houses, listing the names, every male, head by head…" (Numbers 1:2). What follows is a list of the tribes and the number of adult males in each.

The Sefat Emet finds transcendent wisdom in this apparently dry piece of text. The Chassidic master connects the counting "by heads" in our parashah with another biblical verse about counting, "There is no counting [or 'telling'] God's understanding" [Psalms 147:5]. He suggests that this latter verse refers to the many different ways that each person understands God:

"Each and every Jew has a particular knowledge of God's greatness, according to that person's own rung. It can be shared with no other. This is what the Mishnah teaches: '…showing the greatness of God, for each person was stamped out in the stamp of Adam, yet no two faces are alike.'

"Rabbi Pinhas of Korezc adds that because 'the difference is in minds, not only in faces,' each of us becomes excited by a different quality or aspect [of religious life]. In this count each of us was given that mind and those capacities appropriate to us" ("The Language of Truth," translated by Arthur Green, page 222).

The rebbe takes the apparently simple order for a census as a teaching about the wonder of creation. He remembers the Mishnah's beloved teaching that the Divine Creator is unlike a human artisan. When a human craftsperson makes copies from a single mold, all of the copies are identical. God created all of humanity from Adam as a template, yet each one is utterly unique. The Mishnah seems to be talking about external appearance; Rabbi Pinhas of Korezc invites us to contemplate the still greater wonder of the infinite varieties of the human soul.

One of the things that I love about my work as a spiritual director is that it gives me practice in listening with awe and humility to others in my life, and to life itself. What would happen if we listened with quiet wonder to the people who cross our paths each day — our partners and friends, our children, our colleagues, political figures and the rest? What if we could stop, even occasionally, and recognize the Divine moving through each of these people — just as we apprehend the artist when we view a painting, or sense a connection to the composer when we hear a beautiful piece of music? How might our days be different, how might our world be different, if we could even periodically recognize the person before us as an expression of one facet of the Infinite?

Even when the spark of the Divine is obscured in another — or in ourselves — perhaps we might bring more curiosity and more compassion to the question, "What distorts the unique expression of the Divine that lives within this person?" We might even be moved to ask, "Is there any way I can help this person to clear away what obstructs her essence?"

This Shabbat, let us take a bit of time to hear the deep wisdom in the Torah's slow count of everyone in the community. Let this census help us to recognize the sacredness of all those who count in our world as well.

Rabbi Amy Eilberg
Rabbi Amy Eilberg

Rabbi Amy Eilberg serves as a spiritual director, peace educator and justice activist, and teacher of Mussar. More information on her work can be found at