Friday, 10 December 2010

Vayigash - counting 70 names which count


I always get a thrill from the list of names of the Children of Israel who go down to Egypt – a list at the heart of this week’s parasha

The list contains the first mention in the Bible of Carmi – the name Josephine and I gave our firstborn son.

But I realise that for most it’s a dull passage.

But there is always plenty to teach.


Two observations about the counting of names.


Last week we had extra Torah readings from Parashat Naso – the list of the different sacrifices brought by the specific people on each of the days of the original dedication of the Tabernacle.

Symbolically read when we celebrate the rededication of the Temple under the Maccabees.

Every day, the entire sacrificial offering is repeated, word for word, with only a name changed.

Why the need to repeat.

Because recognise individuality.

In context of theological – don’t repeat unless have to.

In context of having to handwrite everything – temptation to use a shorthand.

Commitment to preserve the recognition of individual achievement.

That counts.


Classic opening Midrash in Sefer Bmidbar – Sefer HaPikudim – censuses, Book of Numbers

Rich people like to sit and count their money.

So God likes to sit and count the Jews.

We run through the names to show we care.


No better way of showing you care about someone than using their name.

And conversely – and as a congregational Rabbi I hate that this is true, but true it is – you get someone’s name wrong, or can’t remember their name you give a clear signal that you just don’t care enough.

Harold Kushner suggests we always remember the name of those we consider more important than ourselves and always forget the name of those we consider less important than we are.



First observation

Using names count.

We should make every effort to know them.

And the excuse that ‘I’m bad at names,’ usually laughed off, just isn’t good enough.


A second observation – in the details.

And as is well known – God is in the details.


The list comes in four parts.

First the children of Leah,

Then Leah’s concubine, Zilpa

Then Rachel.

Then Rachel’s concubine Bilha.


Bilha has 7 children.

And Rachel has fourteen – precisely double.


Zilpa has sixteen and Leah has –you might be expecting double sixteen – well you would be sort of right. If you count up the list of names there are 32 children called. But having run through the 32 names the Bible tells us that the sons that Leah bore to Jacob were 33

Someone is missing.

There is a list of thirty-two sons. And the Bible tells us there are 33 in the group.


The Midrash[1] asks,

Who is missing number.

"Some say: Yaakov completed the number.

R. Yitzchak said: This may be compared to two legions of the king: Decumani and Augustiani (the two most important legions in the Roman army). When the king is counted together with one legion, its number is complete. And when he is counted together with the other legion, its number is complete."


The two legions in Yacov’s army are the children of Leah and the children of Rachel.

And this time he is lining up with the children of Leah.

I think the message is this.

You have to count yourself.


It’s a story told of the wise men of Chelm, the fictional pantomime fools of the Chasidic imagination.

Once waiting for a minyan they asked their wisest of their number to check there was indeed a Minyan present.

The man counted one – to nine, and sadly acknowledged there wasn;t a minyan.

It was only when a stranger from a faraway city entered the room that began to pray.

Why hadn’t you started, the stranger asked.

Because we weren’t quorate, the Chelniks replied.

But there are eleven of us here, the stranger replied.

It turns out the wise man had forgot to count himself.


Reminded also of a fabulous vox pop quote I heard before some election while I was in America. Some man was complaining about taxes being too high.

I don’t want to have to pay for health insurance, he said, I want the government to pay for health insurance.

Too often in our lives we look for someone to do something and we forget to count ourselves.

Too often we bemoan the absence of something, someone, volunteering – and we forget to count ourselves.

Just as the counting of the children of Jacob is only complete when Jacob is counted among them.

So too we are a community, and indeed as a people, only complete when we remember to count ourselves.


So names count.

And we must remember to count ourselves.


Shabbat shalom

[1] Bereishit Rabba 94:9

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