“Take a census.” With those words, this week’s Torah portion, BaMidbar, and the Book of Numbers as a whole begin.
“Take a census.” Count all of the people.
It is said in a quote that is often, but questionably, attributed to Joseph Stalin that, “The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of millions is a statistic.” No matter its origin, there is more than a grain of truth in that statement.
When we deal with millions of deaths, like we do when we discuss the Shoah, it is difficult to conceptualize the numbers and certainly to connect. Learning stories of individuals, as opposed to a sweeping narrative of an entire conflict, becomes important. Those stories are what humanize the numbers.
This is one of the primary reasons why people are given a passport, a name and a story, when they tour the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC. It is also the reason that Steven Spielberg colorized the dress of a young girl in Schindler’s List. In the movie, a wide array of violence occurring in the background to dozens of people shown on the screen, much less to the many tens of thousands of people who lived in the ghetto, doesn’t have the impact of seeing a single girl in a red dress walking down the middle of the street amid the violence and chaos going on around her.
Hearing that tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of people have died in the Syrian Civil War is difficult to conceptualize in a way that makes it seem real. I remember as a child being awed by the crowd at the Cardinals’ baseball games. 45,000 people. Let’s round up to 50,000.
Roughly, ten times that number have died in Syria. Eighty times that, maybe more, four million people or so, are refugees. Can you picture 80 stadiums full of people in your head at the same time?
Rwanda, would require multiplying our stadium by sixteen.
The Shoah? 120 times the largest crowd that I could reasonably imagine as a unit and that only includes the Jewish victims, six million.
Moreover, that crowd at Busch Stadium? I didn’t count it. I experienced it. I heard it. I saw the sheer mass of humanity and was told it was 45,000. Families watching the game together, the diehard fans wearing everything Cardinals, the hawkers selling food and drink, shouting above the din, the roar of the crowd as the ball flies toward the outfield wall, the sigh as it goes just foul. That is how I conceive of 50,000 people. I can more or less comprehend that number, envision what that number of people would be like, as an experience. But 120 of those? Not for a moment. Realistically, not even a small fraction of that 120. How can I multiply an experience?
“Take a census,” we are told. Numbers. Large numbers. Tens of thousands here and thousands there.
When we watch the news, especially the most difficult stories, we’re often simply given statistics. In 2004, a Tsunami struck Southeast Asia. Approximately a quarter of a million people died. Five stadiums full, spread over the shorelines of a number of nations. Hard to imagine that scale
Sometimes, the numbers are all we’re told. Another shooting happened. Sometimes, they tell us the skin color of the victim. Sometimes an age. Usually, they give us a name. Rarely, are we given more, a story.
When things like the terrorist attack in Manchester, England occur, at first, we’re simply given casualty figures, cold stark statistics. So many dead. So many injured.
And then, used to seeing and hearing stories like that, we often tune out.
The names, faces, and the stories come to us too late to help us truly feel what we should feel. We get angry at hearing or seeing the numbers, but we don’t feel the numbers. We’re angry at the idea of the numbers, “more,” “so many,” and then we move on.
We watch the new episode of our favorite sitcom or perhaps the latest episode of our favorite reality TV show, depicting some other reality, some artificially created alternative reality, the stories of others.
When we see our reality depicted on the news, how quickly do we respond to the news? “Again!” “Another one!” “When will it stop???” Shootings, terrorist attacks, even genocides. “Never again!” And then we change the channel. Statistics.
Yes, many of the stories of survivors of the Shoah are similar to one another. The stories blur together—if you try to learn them all together. It is important to learn individual stories.
You may remember Peter Pintus, the former Assistant to the Rabbi of the Temple. Here’s a part of his story. Peter Pintus grew up a Reform Jew in Berlin, the son of a wealthy industrialist Jewish father and a Christian mother. On Krystalnacht, his father rode the subway train all night, staying safe. Eventually, both Peter and his father were arrested. Peter served in a work camp in a salt mine and was one of only a handful of survivors of the camp, having escaped into the woods on the last day of the camps existence, when the power to the fence was turned off. Eventually, he came to Iowa, became a part of the Jewish community and this congregation. And he shared his story with countless people over the years.
Each story is unique. Each person is more than a number. That is especially true when remembering the Shoah and the fact that so many people were treated as if they were merely a number, a number often tattooed on their arms.
“Take a census,” we are told. Not just the numbers, know the stories.
If I told you that 22 people were killed in Manchester, England the other night, you might well compare that number to some other event. How many died in Paris? How many are dying in Syria? How many died in Egypt today? How many this year in Chicago?
But if I told you about individuals, the numbers wouldn’t matter. Each life is precious. One, each one, matters. Our tradition says that each life is as the entire world. We do not mourn statistics. We mourn for people.
The news showed pictures of a young girl wearing an oversized police jacket that almost reached her feet being hugged by a policewoman as she stood outside the arena. It was cold outside. Millie Kiss, age 12, survived. Her mother, Michelle did not.
Several victims were parents waiting to drive their children home from the concert. Marcin and Angelika Klis both in their early 40s as well as Polish immigrants to England, and Alison Howe, 45, and Lisa Lees, 47, were all there to pick up their daughters.
Saffie Roussos was attending the concert with her older sister and mother, both of whom were injured by shrapnel and are being treated in hospitals. Saffie was 8 years old.
I could go on, but I think you get the point. Without these stories, we only have a number, 22. And these aren’t even the full stories, just snippets of who they were.
Our Torah portion commands, “Take a census.” But don’t just count, adding one to the next. Every individual’s story matters. If every individual matters, if each story matters, we matter—you matter—I matter.
That is the bigger lesson of the Jewish tradition. Every individual matters. Every person is important. We are not just Numbers.
Each of us is created in the image of God.
Each a universe.
Every person matters.