The week’s Torah Portion, Bamidbar, is the first parsha in the Book of Numbers. The Book is called Numbers because the entire parsha is about numbering each of the 12 tribes of Israel that went out of Egypt. The Torah is explicit: “Take the sum of all the congregation of the children of Israel, by their families, by their fathers' houses, according to the number of names, every male, by their polls; from twenty years old and upward, all that are able to go forth to war in Israel: Number them by their hosts, even you and Aaron.” (Numbers 1:2-3) The text then tells us the name of the head of each tribe, followed by the number of men over the age of 20, who could go out to war, in each tribe.
Reuben – 46.500
Shimon – 59,300
Judah – 74,600
Issachar – 54,400
Zevulon – 57,400
Menashe – 40,500
Ephraim – 32,200
Benjamin – 35,400
Dan – 62,700
Asher – 41,500
Gad – 45,650
Naphtali – 53,400
Total – 603,550
In Judaism, numbers matter. In this case it tells us the extent of, not only the number, of Jews who had been slaves in Egypt at the time of the Exodus, and also how many were present at the Revelation at Mt. Sinai. Of course, it’s not entirely accurate because it doesn’t include the women, children, or senior citizens, but it gives us an idea of the large number of people.
There are many examples of the importance of numbers in our tradition. On Passover, we sing the song Echad Mi Yodeah, which teaches the importance of numbers through various parts of our tradition:
One = God
Two = Luchot HaBrit, the Two Tables of the 10 Commandments
Three = Patriarchs – Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob
Four = Matriarchs – Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel & Leah
Five = The Five Books of the Torah
Six = The Order of the Mishnah
Seven = Days of the week…… etc., etc.
Numbers teach us. Numbers give us a clearer understanding of the world around us. Since numbers are so much a part of our tradition, and since they give us a better understanding of the world around us, here are some other numbers that we should all know and understand.
70% of the surface of Earth is water
99% of the living space on Earth is underwater.
60-70% of the human body is water.
Here are some more specifics:
12-15 humans are killed by sharks every year.
80,000,000 – 100,000,000 sharks are killed by humans every year.
50% of the coral on the Great Barrier Reef is dead.
90% of the coral in the Florida Keys is dead.
Estimated worldwide Sperm Whale population: 300,000-450,000 whales.
Estimated population of North Atlantic Right Whales: Fewer than 350 whales.
Estimated Southern Blue Whale population: 1,500-4,200 whales
Estimated number of fish to produce human and non-human food in 2020: 179 million tons.
179 million tons represents the live weight equivalent to the amount of fish. The actual number of individual marine animals is more than a trillion and is impossible to measure.
The problem with numbers is that generally speaking, when we read them, they are mere digits on a screen. We have become so sensitized to massive numbers that they don’t really impact us the way they should. When I teach about the Holocaust, one of the biggest challenges is how to take an incomprehensible number like 6,000,000 and make it personal. Here’s how to do it.
If you were to start counting right now, 1…2…3…4…5…6…7…8…9…10… One number every second. No names. Just numbers, 11…12…13…14…15… You would be counting through the week 16...17…18…19…20… Through the entire month. You can’t stop to eat. You can’t stop to sleep. Just numbers. 21…22…23…24…25… You can’t stop to go to the bathroom or to rest. 26…27…28…29…30…You would still be counting until the end of the next month before you reached 6,000,000. Now imagine that every one of those numbers was a husband or a wife, a father or a mother, a son, a daughter, a brother or a sister. Imagine that each of those numbers had a name. Imagine that each of those numbers had hopes and dreams. Then we can begin to comprehend the true depth of those numbers and recognize that they are more than just numbers. Each one of those numbers was a living being, a living soul.
The Holocaust is not comparable to industrial fishing, but I used the example of counting the numbers to connect you to something we all know and honor. I ask you to look at numbers and hopefully see that our actions have a greater impact than just deciding what’s for dinner. What humans remove from the water to serve as “food” is much more than a resource at our disposal to do with as we please. Every Shabbat we say:
נִשְׁמַת כָּל חַי, תְּבָרֵךְ אֶת שִׁמְךָ יְיָ אֱלֹהֵֽינוּ
Let every living soul bless Your Name, O Lord our God.
Our tradition recognizes and acknowledges that every living being has a soul and praises God every day, each in its own unique way.
As humans, we identify and empathize with our fellow humans. We bond with other mammals as companions or as symbols of strength and beauty. Even those terrestrial beings with whom we don’t have close relations, an eagle soaring in the sky or a pelican gliding on the wind, we still see with wonder. Yet for all the living beings in the Sea, we have no such relationship. How can we? They live in an environment in which we cannot. They’re not cute and cuddly like a puppy or a kitten. We can’t talk to them. We can’t hold them. We can’t sleep with them. We can’t gaze lovingly into their eyes. They are alien to us. We try to comprehend their intelligence but do it in comparison to our own. The questions should not be about how intelligent they are or what is their capacity to know or learn. The questions should be: can they suffer? Do they feel pain? Do they know fear? From the perspective of our tradition, there is no question that they have a soul. From the perspective of our tradition, there is no question that every living soul praises God.
So, to begin to empathize with those souls in the Sea, and put into perspective the number of marine animals that humans kill every year, let’s apply the same method as I described before. Let’s count. One number every second, 1…2…3…4…5…6…7…8…9…10… One for every fish that will end up on a plate in a restaurant or in a can of cat food, 11…12…13…14…15… One for every shark that ends up in a bowl of soup. 16..17…18…19…20… One for every crustacean. One for every mollusk. One for every octopus. One for every whale or dolphin. You will not be counting just for the next two months. You won’t even stop counting by the end of the year. If you just keep counting, one number every second to represent every living soul taken from the water in the year 2020 alone…you would be counting for the next 35,000 years.
Numbers don’t lie. Something is wrong.
Let every living soul bless Your Name, O Lord our God.
And let every human being recognize what we are doing to Your creation.