Counting the Uncountable

Written by Rabbi Yonatan Zakem on . Posted in Torah

Parshas Ki Tisa begins with the instructions of how to conduct a census of the Jewish people. Hashem instructs Moshe not to count the Children of Israel directly, but rather to collect a half-shekel contribution from each individual, thereby allowing a census to be taken by tallying the coins collected. The Torah provides that by following the proper census procedure, a plague will not be visited upon the nation. Indeed, in the days of King David, this procedure was not followed, with tragic results. Therefore, everyone from the age of twenty must contribute a coin, and the coins will be counted.

The connection between counting the individual members of the Jewish people directly and the outbreak of a plague seems enigmatic. Why is a plague the consequence of not heeding the appropriate census methodology?


I once heard an inspiring explanation of this concept. When one counts a number of objects, items are only grouped if they are essentially interchangeable. For example, if one were tallying the number of chairs at their table and forks in the drawer, they would not say “we have 24 forks and chairs,” but rather “we have 20 forks and four chairs.” The twenty forks, separate objects though they may be, can be summed up because they are functionally identical, but they cannot be combined with the chairs, with which they are not interchangeable.

So, too, with the Jewish people. If the census was conducted by counting the actual individuals, the implication would be that they are all essentially interchangeable. If they are all basically the same, says Hashem, then it isn’t necessary to have so many of them. Thus, the consequence is a plague. Therefore, we each submit a representative item which is interchangeable, and the census is completed in that way.

The lesson for us is both an inspiring message and a charge. No Jew is dispensable in Hashem’s eyes. We are each uniquely valued by our Creator. We each have our unique role to play, and the contribution of every individual is irreplaceable. We should merit to approach each challenge in life with the awareness that the impact we make is unique and treasured.

Rabbi Zakem is a Kollel Scholar and Director of Community Outreach for the Greater Washington Community Kollel.