When I was in kindergarten, the teacher spoke to us on Yom Hashoah about the holocaust. How do you explain the systematic dehumanization that took place in Nazi occupied Europe to a group of young children? My kindergarten teacher told us during circle time, ”The Nazis ordered people: Forget your name!”
I found this to be a very curious statement as a child. It stayed with me. Today I understand the wisdom of my teacher’s words. In Judaism, we do not count souls. When we check to ascertain whether we have the minimum ten men required for a Torah service, we use various verses or blessings that amount to ten words, in order to avoid counting people numerically. This is because our tradition is sensitized to the uniqueness and intrinsic worth of every soul created in the Divine image.
In the Nazi death camps, people were not called out by their names, but by the serial number which was tattooed on their arms. In the eyes of the perpetrators, they were no longer a name, a distinct essence, a human being. They were just a number. As my kindergarten teacher taught me decades ago, the inmates in the death camps were told to forget their name, in Hebrew: to forget their “Hashem” – to forget G-d, which implies to forget and abandon all that is lofty and worthy in the human spirit. To be deprived of your name is to be deprived of your irreducible uniqueness.
That’s why at the beginning of this week’s Torah reading, which records the first census in Jewish history, the Almighty commands Moses to conduct the census by way of asking each soul to donate, to contribute, to give a precise monetary sum (half a shekel). The Torah emphasizes that the poor shall not give less than the prescribed amount (half a shekel), and that the rich may not augment. Rather than counting people numerically, our ancestors counted the contribution that each individual makes.
So next time you see people avoiding counting souls directly for a minyan (prayer service), or for any other reason, remember – there is an immense profundity and sensitivity to this practice. It attests to the dignity of the human, and the eternity of the Divine.