This week, we begin a new book of the Torah and enter a new phase of our remarkable adventures in the wilderness as a people. In Bamidbar (which is both the name of our Torah portion and the Hebrew name of the book of Numbers), we begin with a rather involved census of the people, who are counted "by heads."
The great Chasidic master, Rabbi Yehuda Leib Alter of Ger (known as the Sefas Emes), connects the following passage with the psalms: "There is no counting His understanding." There are two ways to apply this verse to the census, and each is worthy of a little thought.
The first is that people cannot be counted the way inanimate objects can. That is to say, if I ran a widget factory, I could number my widgets according to weight and size, knowing not only how many of each kind I produced, but also knowing that in each category of widget I make, every one would be identical.
But how does one count people, when each of us is different? The Mishnah teaches that, unlike coins, which are stamped out one like the other, each of us shows " … the greatness of God, for each person was stamped out in the stamp of Adam, yet no two faces are alike."
In other words, we can try to count ourselves, and perhaps find practical value in the act, but ultimately, our diversity cannot be fully quantified for it is a reflection if the Infinite variety contained within the One. But wait, there is more.
Another Chasid, Rabbi Pinchas of Korzec, taught: "The difference is in minds, not only in faces." From this, the Sefas Emes concludes that the verse, "there is no counting His understanding," refers to the many ways of understanding God. Every single Israelite counted, because each one had a unique and necessary "piece of the puzzle" as it were.
If we take this lesson to heart, we discover the second approach, which really is just an extension of the first. We all know the joke: Ask two Jews one question and get three answers. We disagree about all kinds of things. We argue about how to be Jewish at every level imaginable, sometimes refusing even to sit at the same table with each other because of differences of opinion.
Yet in so doing, we really miss the point. There is a wonderful midrash that states that all Israel – every single one of us – is a letter of Torah: if only one of us is missing, then all of Torah is incomplete.
If this is true, then each of us needs the other, for otherwise, we can never fully understand what authentic Judaism really is – what it knows and what it teaches. Instead, we will sit in our little boxes, and tell ourselves over and over again the comforting lie that we know better than they.
Just imagine what it would be like if we spent less time trying to convince each other why we are right and they are wrong, and more time actually listening. Just imagine what it would be like if all of us – regardless of affiliation or practice – could check our arrogance at the door, and stand in awe together in the recognition that "there is no counting His understanding."
I'd like to think that if we could find a way to make this happen, then God might look upon us, as during the beginning of it all, and say, "This is good."
Yet why stop there? Imagine what the world would become if we all stopped trying to make each other over in our own image, instead of marveling at the remarkable diversity through which the image of God is reflected in the multitudes of humanity and the spiritual traditions they follow.
And I think that when we do, it is more a reflection of us than of God.
If we could somehow learn to respect our differences and celebrate how "there is no counting His understanding," then we might just begin to understand how each and every one of us count and matter.
Rabbi Gary Pokras serves Temple Judea of Bucks County in Doylestown.