One of the early expressions of the dignity of the individual is in this week’s Torah reading. The greatness of giants is a commonplace: Adam, Noah, the Patriarchs, Moses—these are all noteworthy names. But the anonymous, the scores of thousands who were not leaders and chiefs, the masses—they too are endowed with worth by the simple theme of this week’s Torah reading, the census. Counting implies value, for worthless things are not counted, certainly not as individual units but in the mass at best. The Torah counts Israel to the last man, because each one, insignificant though he may seem, is priceless.

Counting implies value, for worthless things are not counted

We are quite prepared to accept this idea, that even the little man is not so little that he may be ignored. But the biblical commentator Rashi makes a noteworthy observation. He cites several occasions when Israel is counted, specifically the count following the Golden Calf and the count following the dedication of the Sanctuary. These examples are in striking contrast. One depicts Israel in the depths of idolatry, at its spiritual nadir; the other represents Israel in a moment of dedication (of self no less than Sanctuary) to G‑d’s service.

Perhaps Rashi means to indicate that the worth of man is intrinsic, that his soul has an innate purity beyond sullying. We cannot establish standards for “worthy” people and proceed to deny to the deficient the prerogatives of all men. Each individual is unique and priceless, and not only at moments of consecration, but even when fallible and fallen, is worthy of being counted as one of Israel.