I still remember Mr. Seligman, my English teacher back in high school, acting out a scene we were studying from George Eliot’s Silas Marner. With power and passion, he dramatized how the poor man would lovingly count his gold pieces as the shiny coins slipped through his fingers.

The image comes to mind this week as we read Bamidbar, the first portion in the Book of Numbers, in which G‑d instructs Moses to count the Israelites. Just like old Silas, G‑d counts that which is most precious to Him.

Sometimes I wonder if we ourselves realize how treasured we are in G‑d’s eyes.

In any census, every individual counts once, no more and no less. Moshe Rabeinu, Moshe Dayan, or Moshe Chaim Goldberg; Maimonides or Mendelsohn; Rabbi Shmulewitz or Mr Shlemiel—great or ordinary, we all count equally. And the Jewish nation counts on us, every one of us.

The Cosmic Mission

A little old Jew, wearing thick glasses and pushing a walker, hobbles into the NASA Recruitment Office in Cape Canaveral. The receptionist asks how she can help him. The man says, “It’s about your advertisement where you say you’re looking for astronauts for the next space mission.”

“Yes?” says the woman, rather perplexed. “We are looking for young people who are qualified pilots, in excellent physical condition, with perfect eyesight.”

“Well,” says the old man, “I just wanted you to know that on me you shouldn’t rely.”

How many of us say, “Don’t rely on me,” or, “Don’t count on me”? But we all count. And, yes, we do count on you.

I remember hearing the Rebbe use the astronaut metaphor to illustrate the keen sense of responsibility every Jew should feel about our own historic, national mission.

What if an astronaut on board a spacecraft would decide to do his own thing? Despite the amount of time, money, and resources invested in his training, instead of following mission control’s meticulous plan, today he will take a break, play it cool and relax. Obviously, this would be a disaster in the making, with the potential to compromise the entire project.

Well, explained the Rebbe, we Jews have invested centuries, indeed millennia, into the project of Jewish continuity. We have educated and nurtured generations of young people to fulfil their role as dedicated members of our people and to be committed to our national mission. And now? A Jew with such an awesome heritage and huge responsibility will simply walk away from the project and “do his own thing?!” Surely this would be no less of a disaster than that of our reckless astronaut.1

Whether we are considering our marriage choices, what kind of home we wish to establish, or how we will educate our own children, we all should appreciate that every single one of us counts. And the Jewish people are counting on us.

When Push Comes to Shove

Here in South Africa, we used to have many small Jewish communities scattered across the country. Today, the vast majority of these have declined and disintegrated as the younger generations came to the big cities to study, work, and find suitable marriage partners. But a fascinating thing about those smaller communities was the dedication of ordinary people to maintaining the communal infrastructure. And it wasn’t only about keeping up the shul or the minyan. I knew people who were not necessarily ‘religious,’ but they headed the town’s chevra kadisha (burial society). They would personally participate in doing the taharas, preparing the deceased for a traditional Jewish burial.

That is dedication.

Clearly, people living in those small towns were more committed because they knew that if not for them, there might be no one else to do the job. With fewer people available, they felt a deeper sense of responsibility. Interestingly, when those same people moved to the bigger cities, they often no longer had that same degree of involvement in communal affairs.

Rav Yisroel Salanter,2 father of the Mussar movement, once said, “Every Jew should feel as if he or she is the last Jew on earth.” And if they won’t do what needs to be done, there would be no one else to do it.

Over the years, I’ve made the point to many a bar mitzvah boy, “You count! And you, yes you, are personally responsible for the future of the Jewish people!”

I know it’s a bit of a guilt trip, but imagine if every Jew felt that way.