Voices of WRJ - B'midbar

Do Numbers Tell the Truth?
May 14, 2021Luisa Narins, WRJ Board Member and Individual Member

In mid-March, I was part of the WRJ Legislative Body Meeting, where we affirmed resolutions and approved changes to the WRJ Constitution. In changing language in one item of the Constitution, discussion arose as to whether or not a WRJ Board member had to be Jewish. After a thorough debate with many points raised, the majority felt that being Jewish, either by birth or conversion, was an important criterion for someone serving on the WRJ Board of Directors. However, I did not agree with that decision.

Similarly, last year, during the National Census, there were questions voiced about counting only official US residents and citizens. Currently, we are still counting the number of unemployed, medically afflicted, and deaths suffered during the pandemic. We count our age, we count our work hours, we count our money, we count the minutes of our workouts, we count our meals... as humans, we count and are counted. It is in our nature to strive to understand situations, circumstances, and events by giving quantitative numbers as descriptors. In this way, we search for structure and meaning. 

In Parashah B’midbar or The Book of Numbers, God orders a census of the Jewish people in the wilderness, one year, one month, and one day after the Exodus. A detailed process is laid out, but though the text calls for a census of the whole Israelite community (Kol Adat B’nei Yisrael), the count comes back with a number of 603,550 men, over the age of 20, who can bear arms. You can argue that women, children, elderly men, and those unable to bear arms were deliberately excluded from this census. So, who counts, and who decides who counts?

These questions are even more relevant today. Our lives contribute to public statistics, from census data to viewing patterns to credit scores, and, in turn, our lives are ruled by these statistics and their interpretation. Today’s society uses our data to measure the success of marketing or political campaigns, record outcomes both good and bad, and even critique efficiency and productivity. We may wonder if that is all we are now, our individual value and contributions reduced to just a number, to be counted and analyzed? Moreover, numbers can be manipulated to suit different purposes, goals, and agendas. Statistics can be altered, massaged, and misstated. Inaccurate conclusions may be drawn from inappropriate data collection or improper analysis. If misleading statistics are repeated enough times, they may eventually be considered true, or, at least, obscure what is true. Statistical data, while valuable when rigorously compiled and examined, can conversely be dangerous in the hands of the unscrupulous or uninformed. 

We need to critically evaluate numerical data to parse the truth from the meaningless. We need to be able to have “faith” in the numbers, that is, that they accurately describe facts and truthfully provide proof of our collective reality. We can start by inquiring where our statistics are coming from. We must verify our sources. We must also take responsibility for electing people of integrity and wisdom who are charged with the collection and analysis of statistics, as well as the reporting of that data to the public. 

However, we should also recognize that value is not simply a function of numbers alone. We should look at people and the difference they make.

Every person brings a different perspective that can enrich a community. We should strive to be inclusive, to find a way to learn from our differences and celebrate what we have in common. Rashi said, “we should count something each person gives.” Deliberately leaving out people and not considering Kol Adat goes against God’s commandment. After all, we do find strength in numbers.

Everyone deserves to be counted, and it is justice to ensure that everyone with a connection to Judaism finds that link. As this week’s Haftorah says "The number of the children of Israel shall be as the sand of the sea." So, let all who identify as Jewish be counted among us. Kein yi’hi ratzon.

 

Luisa Narins is an Individual Member of WRJ, she serves on the WRJ North American Board, is Vice President of Marketing and Communications for the WRJ Atlantic District. Luisa is a professional actor, Zumba instructor and is married to Dr. Seth Narins. Together they have eight lovely kitties at their River Vale, NJ home.

 

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