There is a lot of counting going on in this week’s parasha, Ki Sisa.
It begins with God’s instructions that, when Moses takes a census of the Children of Israel, he is to do so by collecting a half-shekel from each person over 20 years old. The words Ki Sisa mean “to raise up,” which was appropriate because the coins collected in the census were used for the Mishkan (Tabernacle), so the people became elevated by using their means to honor God.
We are unsure as to whether a census was taken at that time. Ramban says there was, but Rashi disagrees – another count, 1 to 1.
After receiving instructions about the construction of the laver – the large copper basin in which the priests wash their hands and feet before performing the holy service – we start counting again, this time with exact numbers of the fragrant spices that go into the oil to be used to anoint the priests. Then God directs that the incense to be burned in the Mishkan will be made of equal measures (more counting) of four spices – stacte, onycha, galbanum and frankincense.
After designating the two artists who will build the Mishkan, Bezalel and Oholiab, God discusses Shabbat, and goes back to counting: “For six days work may be done and the seventh day is a day of complete rest.” The reminder of the holiness of Shabbat follows instructions for making the Mishkan which teaches us that even the holy work of building the Mishkan may not be done on Shabbat. In fact, the 39 types of work that are prohibited on Shabbat were derived from the tasks done in putting up and taking down the Mishkan.
Then we have a miscount, which brings about a tragedy. Moses told the people he would ascend Mount Sinai for 40 days to receive the Torah. The people think they should count the day he left as the first day, but Moses meant he would be gone for 40 full days, so the count would start the next morning. When Moses does not return on the day the people expected him, they fear they are now leaderless, and seek something to be a symbol of their relationship with God. They revert to familiar things, and call for Aaron and Hur, whom Moses left in charge during his absence, to build an idol. Tradition tells us that Hur opposed those calling for an idol and they killed him. Aaron, to calm the crowd, tells the people to bring their gold jewelry. He melts it down and fashions a golden calf. To direct the people’s attention away from the idol and back to God, Aaron says there will be a festival for God the next day. Some of the people begin dancing around the idol and worshipping it.
Moses returns to the camp and learns what has happened. He smashes the stone tablets on which God has inscribed the Ten Commandments, then he smashes the idol, pounds it to dust, mixes it with water and makes the people drink it.
Now Moses calls out, “Whoever is for God, join me!” The Levites, who have not taken part in the sin of the golden calf, join Moses, and they strike down about 3,000 people who worshipped the idol.
Moses then carves new stone tablets, goes back up Mount Sinai, where God again inscribes the Ten Commandments on the tablets. God teaches Moses the prayer we use to ask for forgiveness (counting again) the Thirteen Attributes: “Hashem, Hashem, God, Compassionate and Gracious, Slow to Anger, and Abundant in Kindness and Truth. Preserver of Kindness for thousand [of generations], Forgiver of Iniquity, Willful Sin and Error, and Who Cleanses.”
The counting that means the most to me was by Moses. He prayed for the people twice.
First, just before he came down Mount Sinai, God said “Let My anger flare up against them and I shall destroy them and I shall make you a great nation.” Moses pleaded with God not to do this, reminding God they were “Your people, whom You have taken out of the land of Egypt.” He also reminded God of the promises to the Patriarchs, to whom You promised to make their offspring as numerous as the stars and give them the Land of Israel.
Then, the next day, when Moses returned to the top of Mount Sinai, he prayed that God would forgive the people, “But if not, erase me now from this book that You have written.”
The math that Moses used calculated the Children of Israel as everything, and himself as nothing. He served the people selflessly, and the people could “count” on him at all times.
That is why, when we count the prophets, Moses is number one. Can the people who need you count on you like the Children of Israel could count on Moses?