This Shabbat’s D’var Torah was given by Rabbi Carl
The portion of Ki Thissa which we read this morning starts with the first census taken in Jewish history which was to find out how many men of 20 years old and above there were should a war be necessary. What is unusual is that the men were not assigned numbers. Instead each gave a half shekel by means of which the numbers were tallied.
Therefore, from our earliest days, we did not number people. Each human being was sacred and could not be reduced to a number, to something inanimate and impersonal. Each of us is sacred because we were created in the image of God. That is why, for example when you count the number of people needed for a minyan, the quorum for a complete prayer service, you use a verse with ten words. You don’t count the people from 1-10.
At the same time we know that numbers are important to maintain any civil society. Numbers matter. In Judaism, we need two witnesses to solemnized a marriage. We need a Jewish court of three to convert someone to Judaism. One becomes a Bar Mitzvah at the age of 13. In the complex world today, people are of necessity assigned a multitude of numbers. The first number I can remember that identified me in the US was my Social Security number. More than 50 years ago, I needed it to register for university courses. And in the last half century I have accumulated a long list of numbers as pass codes, credit card numbers, so on and so forth, far too many to remember.
More than ever there is the danger of being reduced to a series of numerals which I think ultimately objectifies us and dehumanizes us. No better example exists for the Jewish people than the number tattooed on the arm of a Holocaust survivor. How then do we retain our identities as human beings created in the image of God who are to be treated with respect and sensitivity because we are sacred?
Ki Thissa offers us another example of the uniqueness and sanctity of each human soul, each life. The rabbis of old make every effort to view the fact that Aaron who helped the Israelites create the Golden Calf had a reason to do so besides saving his own skin. The context is the fact that according to the Talmud a man named Hur is mentioned as helping Moses at the Red Sea and then no longer heard about. The Talmud tells us that he was murdered by the people because he refused to help them build the calf. Well then, if Aaron did help was he not doing so to save his own skin? No. The perspective of the Talmud is that he was saving the people from committing a worse sin than the calf. He was preventing them from committing yet another murder, his own. Had they not heard the story of Cain killing his own brother Abel and the consequences of history’s first homicide?
When we connect the incident of Aaron and the Golden Calf with the reluctance to transform a person into a number during the first census, we must conclude that there is really only one number which counts. I am reminded of a scene in the movie “City Slickers.”
A group of men go to a dude ranch for a male bonding experience. There they are told by their cowboy teacher by holding up his index finger that we must all find the one thing in life which matters to us. From Judaism’s point of view, that one thing is not a thing at all. It is each one of us, uniquely created in the image of the one God.
After all the Talmud says, “He who saves one life, it is as if he saved the entire world.” That’s what the first census was trying to tell us. That’s what Aaron was trying to do. That is what we must do as we navigate our way through a myriad of numbers daily. We must never allow a single person, starting with ourselves to be dehumanized, made less than sacred, by being turned into a number!