Ten thousand steps a day. That was the goal. I recently downloaded a step-tracking app onto my phone, in an effort to boost my fitness level. I needed a tangible record of my progress, when the scale was frustratingly slow to register improvement.

The step-counter was revolutionary! Instead of planning my route to do the least walking possible, I now do just the opposite. Any extra detour is welcome if it boosts my step count.

Ten thousand steps a day. That was the goal

I discovered that there is a catch, though. The step-counter is not a perfect device. Not every step is picked up or recorded. Then I feel compelled to run an extra mile or so, just to see the coveted target number appear on the screen. It feels a little silly—doesn’t my body know how many steps I take, whether or not the phone picks them up? In my mind, though, it makes no difference—if it wasn’t counted, it didn’t count.

We count things for many reasons. We may count to make sure we have enough, to ensure we don’t lose anything or leave anything behind. We count to reach a goal: steps walked, dollars raised, members enrolled. We count for pleasure, when the items are valuable to us and we enjoy owning them. But what all these “countings” have in common is that by counting something, we focus attention on it. We confer importance to it.

In this week’s Torah portion, we read of the counting of the Jewish people after their descent to Egypt: “Now these are the names of the sons of Israel who came into Egypt with Jacob; every man and his household they came. Reuben, Simeon, Levi and Judah; Issachar, Zebulan and Benjamin; Dan and Naphtali, Gad and Asher. And all the souls . . . were 70 souls.”1

The narrative then describes how “the Children of Israel were fruitful, increased abundantly, and became very strong.”2 The Jewish population in Egypt experienced a phenomenal growth spurt, becoming such a strong and mighty nation that they threatened Pharaoh’s security. This verse, then, provides a likely reason for the count, to demonstrate the stark contrast between the Jewish people’s original modest number and subsequent remarkable increase.

Rashi, in his commentary on the above verse,suggests an additional reason for the count: “Although [G‑d] counted them by their names in their lifetime, He counted them again after their death, to make known how precious they are to Him. For they are compared to the stars, which He brings out and brings in by number and by their names, as it says: ‘He who takes out their hosts by number; He calls them by name.’34

What puzzles Rashi is why it is necessary to repeat the names of the sons of Jacob, who were already mentioned previously at the end of the book of Genesis. If the Torah wished to point out that the Jewish people increased in number, it would have only been necessary to relate that they numbered 70. Why mention the names of the tribes? Rashi therefore asserts that the names of Jacob’s sons are listed for the sole purpose of expressing G‑d’s love for them.

The Jewish people are compared to the stars, which are lovingly set out each night and counted by name. In the morning, they are gathered in and once again counted by name. A count of stars focuses on the quality of a star that is common to all—namely, its essence, its identity as a star. Each star is counted as no more or less than any other star. Being called by a name, though, delineates the star’s unique characteristics, as well as the spiritual qualities that emanate from it.

So too, each Jew has an essential soul, which makes us all equally great and precious before G‑d. At the same time, each soul has unique qualities, which are reflected in a person’s name. Counting emphasizes the essential, indivisible quality that we all share, while being named highlights our individual strengths and attributes.

When the Jewish people are counted, the greatest and most distinguished is counted exactly the same as the most lowly and simple. We all contain an essential soul, and “are all equal, with one father for all.”5

A name is also related to the person’s essence. We carry the same name over the course of our lifetime—as a vulnerable newborn to a fully developed, accomplished adult. Thus, the name of a person is not connected to any of his or her external abilities, but to the inner character, which may still be latent.

Although both counting and naming are relevant to the person’s essence, each addresses a different level of the soul. A count reveals each soul’s essence as it exists in the celestial spheres before its descent to earth. In the heavenly realm, every soul is indeed the equal of any other soul, as it has not yet been enclothed in the body that gives it its unique attributes. A soul in the heavenly realms has no name; the name is given to the soul only after it has descended to Earth. Being “counted by name”causes the soul’s essential quality, which is above the body and above a name, to illuminate the person from within the body.

It is significant that the Jewish people were counted upon their descent to Egypt. Egypt is a symbol of the soul’s descent to Earth. “Counting by name” is done prior to the soul’s descent to Earth, to give the soul the powers it needs to overcome any and all limitations imposed by the corporeal world. The “counted” element of the soul has an advantage over its “named” element in the sense that it is transcendent, universal and indivisible. Yet we carry out our mission in this world by virtue of the “named” element in our soul—the unique energies and abilities that we contribute to the world. Through these efforts, the essential soul itself achieves an elevation.

This is the significance of the sons of Jacob6 Each soul has a root in one of the twelve tribes being counted “in life and after death.“7 Just as the stars are counted by name “when set out and when brought in,” the souls are counted at birth and after death. The first counting, upon setting out on the journey to Earth, gives the soul, as it is enclothed in a body, the fortitude to withstand the negative and evil forces of the physical world. Through this initial investment of energy from the transcendent element of the soul, the person engages in his mission. The count is then repeated “when brought in,” upon the death of the person. This time, it is the “named” or embodied element of the soul that elevates the soul’s essence.

Whether we are consciously aware of it or not, G‑d continues to count each person by name, thereby infusing us with the spiritual energy to complete our mission. Each person counts no more and no less than anyone else, but each individual has something to share that no one else possesses. We are all reflections of a single and indivisible essential soul. So, too, are we are all dependent on each other to complete the elevation of that essential soul. Even one positive action by one individual can bring deliverance to the entire universe.8 Every step counts!