Nearly 60 years ago, Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan declared, “The medium is the message,”1 proposing that the medium affects society primarily by the characteristics of the medium itself, rather than the content it carries.

Although viewed as ground-breaking in the field of media theory, this idea was actually expressed thousands of years ago in this week’s Torah portion, Bamidbar.

G‑d instructed Moses and Aaron to count the Jewish people. The census was the medium through which it would become known how many would be eligible for battle, and later, how the Land of Israel would be apportioned. This census, unlike our modern decennial census, was not conducted online or even through the mail. Tribe by tribe, each head of household appeared individually before Moses and Aaron to give his name and be counted.

Each person was counted not as a mere number, but as an essential component of a greater distinctive whole. Nachmanides states that one reason for the census was so that every individual had the opportunity to benefit from the attention given to them by Moses and Aaron.2

The characteristics of the medium (census) thus affected society in a much greater way than just the content (the actual number of people). Embedded within the medium of the Torah’s narrative is the message that each Jew holds a designated place within the cohesive structure of the Jewish people. Each person is Divinely endowed with traits and specific abilities meant to be developed. Each of us has an essential role to play in a greater collective journey, spanning generations.

Sunday Dollars: Greeting Every Individual

The Rebbe personified the supreme importance of the individual in relation to society. Every Sunday, he stood for eight hours or more to greet and bless his worldwide followers individually. Hundreds of people would wait patiently in line for hours, just to have the opportunity to be in the Rebbe’s presence for a moment. The Rebbe would hand a dollar to every visitor so that they could donate it to charity, thus fulfilling the mitzvah of tzedakah. These moments were both life-changing and life-affirming. Every person was uplifted by their brief but transformative encounter with, and heartfelt blessing from, the Rebbe.

We all want and need to feel that we are valued. Feeling isolated or marginalized from society, family or even friends is painful. We begin to shut down. The fact that G‑d wanted us to be counted should instill in us a sense of self-worth and purpose. Just as every note and instrument in a musical score has its designated time and purpose, so does every person play a significant role in G‑d’s symphony of the world. We are only as strong as the individuals, families and communities that comprise the collective whole.

We Are Just a Half Without Another

In taking a census, such as the one described in Parshat Bamidbar, it is forbidden to do a literal head count of the Jewish people. The manner of counting was through each person’s donation of a half-shekel coin.3 Each half-shekel represented one person. The half-shekel is a reminder that no Jew is complete on his or her own; we must join together to achieve unity. By working together for the overall greater good, we form a totality and wholeness. Like concentric circles, this completes and expands us.

Nevertheless, while we must join together in unity, we are not to forfeit our individuality. Rather than focus the count on the totality of the mass, the focus was on the individual. The individual is not to be “lost in the crowd” or devalued. Every human is created in G‑d’s image.

Maimonides taught, “Each of us should see ourselves as if our next act could change the fate of the world.”4 What will be your next action? Make it count. Value who you are and the special role that G‑d wants you to assume.

Every life is like an entire universe.5 Recognize your inner value, and realize that you truly matter and can make a difference. Lift up your head. In fact, the counting is called “lift the head” (se’u et rosh) of all the people since the counting was meant to lift each of us up.

It Begins With Each of Us

Each of us can strive to integrate these lessons into our lives. Communicating to others that we appreciate their contributions validates their dignity. There are often “others” who for various reasons are on the sidelines and often excluded. Include them, count them as valued and lift them up. Judaism insists that the dignity of each individual be upheld.

We are a nation, but we are also individuals; this is both a challenge and a strength. May we strive to view ourselves not just as separate entities, but rather as valued members on the same team.

Moreover, we are not to lose ourselves to the alluring conformity of the latest trends and current “values.” To retain our distinctive and distinguishing Jewish identities, we must “lift our own heads” above the “herd mentality” of the times.

The census itself was the medium designed not just to count each person but to make each person count!

Making It Relevant

  1. Strive to view yourself as inherently worthy and act with dignity.
  2. Practice treating others with respect and validate them.
  3. “Lift the head” of someone else, especially one in need of encouragement and compassion.