Posts Tagged ‘proper use of census’

What appears to be a normal collection of data can be used either to benefit the people of a community or just to benefit the leader(s) sitting on the throne. A great example of this can be seen by comparing the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, B’midbar, to a story of King David that appears in two other books of the Tanach, II Samuel and I Chronicle. B’midbar begins with God giving Moses this commandment, “Take a census of the whole Israelite community by the clans of its ancestral houses listing the names, every male, head by head.”  Moses and Aaron are then told to number those who are twenty years or older that are able to bear arms.  The purpose is to have the ability for the Israelites who had been freed from slavery in Egypt to be able to return and occupy their promised land, Canaan.  Here are the key Hebrew words from the beginning of the verse:

שְׂא֗וּ אֶת־רֹאשׁ֙ כָּל־עֲדַ֣ת בְּנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל

S’oo et roshkol adat b’nai Yisra’el

“Take a census of the whole Israelite community”

A more literal translation of this phrase would be, “Raise up the head of each community member of the children of Israel.”  This phrase for doing a census was also used in Exodus chapter 30, at the very beginning of the parashah, Ki Tisa.  What is very noteworthy about the census described in Ki Tisa is the “raising of the heads” of the people was by not actually counting individual humans, but by counting the half shekel each was told to give to God, i.e. the organizing and creation of God’s Tent of Meeting that would be in the center of the Israelite camp. This can be seen as an attempt to not look at counting humans as just counting a material by putting something between the two.

The phrase used to describe taking a census in Exodus and Numbers is very different from the words used in the two versions of the story about King David. In each version, someone against the people tells David to count the people of Israel.  He goes ahead and does it in order to create an army, which he can use to conquer other lands.  The Hebrew word used in II Samuel chapter 24 and in I Chronicle chapter 21 is m’nei, which literally just means “count.” An additional word meaning “count” is also used in I Chronicle.  In both of the King David stories the words describing the census mean the counting of material items.  In Numbers and Exodus, the phrase of “raising heads” teaches us that counting people is supposed to be very different from counting materials.

What King David did was a sin for which he apologized to God for committing.  God punished David and his kingdom by sending a plague that killed a large number of Israelites.  David had looked at the people as a “material” he could use to increase the stretch of his power.  The use of the census in the Torah is for situations meant to benefit the whole of the Israelite people, not just their leaders.  That is implied by “raising their heads.”

The Holocaust provides a prominent historical example of looking at people like a material thing; as opposed to respecting humanity.  In the German concentration camps numbers were tattooed on the prisoners’ arms, which was one of the first steps in degrading them.  Removing the respect for Jews as people was part of reducing their resistance for either torture or murder.  This is one of the most violent, extreme historical examples.

In American history there is a non-violent, commonly used approach, not directed to physically harm people but is still a degradation of humans.  This is still relevant today – using the results of a census to create gerrymandered districts. Like King David, political leaders and parties are focused on their power, not the actual wants and needs of the people.  This has been a practice of politicians for almost two centuries.  It is legitimate to bring up the question of how current administrations, on both the federal and state levels, will carry out the 2020 census.  Will it make sure everyone is properly counted so that resulting districts will be legitimately represented?  Or, will it not gather the data properly, ignoring certain groups to keep the poor and minorities from being properly represented?

The real, final question is will the census be s’oo et rosh, i.e. raising the heads of all the people of our country, or just m’nei, counting people simply as material to the benefit of those in power?




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