(In memory of Dennis Seinfeld, David ben Eliezer, who treated every person as an individual without a begrudging eye.)
This week is one of the most action-packed chapters in the Torah - Moses is on top of Mt. Sinai gets the two tablets but the people mis-counted by a day - he had said he would return on the fortieth day, and he meant that he would be gone 40 complete days, but they counted from the first day. So when he did not come back when he said he would, they got nervous. There was a lot of fire and smoke up there, maybe he died? That was the rumor, and you know how rumors can spread. Soon a small group of non-Israelites whom Moses had allowed to leave Egypt with the Israelites decided to replace Moses with a Golden Calf. Hur tried to stop them but they killed him. Aaron tried to stall them but could not prevent the party that ensued. Party!
1. How are we supposed to relate to the Golden Calf business?
What a party. Imagine the Burning Man festival. Sound like fun? So now imagine a group of non-Jewish neighbors having a wild burning man festival in the basement of your synagogue on Rosh Hashana. Would you tolerate it? Or would you ask them to pack it up? The Jews’ error in the desert was allowing this inappropriate “religious” expression to go on, and their lack of sensitivity caused Moses to break the tablets when he saw what was happening.
Actually, although the Torah says that Moses was angry, the Midrash says that the tablets were physically too heavy for a human being to lift, and Moses had been able to carry them because of his spiritual high. When he descended the mountain to the level of the people, the tablets became too heavy for him and they fell to the ground.
Ask at your table: Were you ever in a situation where you saw someone doing something wrong? How did you react? Were you ever in a group where the mob-mentality affected good people and made them do crazy things? What’s the solution?
2. Counting on you
The opening paragraph of the chapter may be a clue: Moses is told to take a census of the Jewish people by collecting a flat tax of 50¢ per person. That way, he could add up all the money and divide by 2. Why this indirect method? The mystics say that counting something make invoke someone else’s jealousy and a spirit of rivalry, which is spiritually extremely dangerous. We shouldn’t compete with each other to have the biggest house or fastest computer, but those who do are harming only themselves. When it comes to people, however (especially children), creating spirit of jealousy and competition can harm others.
Therefore we don’t directly count people and spiritually sensitive people don’t ask or answer the question, “How many children do you have” without adding the phrase “kyna hara” – literally, “without an evil (or jealous) eye”. (This usage resembles the Christian, or some say pagan, expression, “knock on wood”. Although both expressions are used in similar circumstances, the difference is that “knock on wood” is a superstitious attempt to ward off a negative consequence and “kayna hara” means, “We are having this conversation in good spirits and without the spirit of jealousy or competition – in other words, kayna hara is supposed to help me elevate my own thought patterns).
Each person counts as an individual, we don't want to turn people into numbers.
Ask: How can you count people indirectly? (when we want to see if there are 10 present for quorum, the custom is to count using a sentence with ten words, such as "eeny, meeny, miny, mo, catch, a, tiger, by, the, toe."