What Truly “Counts”?

In just a few days, many of us will be doing a lot of counting. We’ll be counting down the last few seconds of 2023. We’ll be reflecting on the fact that 2019 – back in the “before times” – is about to be five years ago. We’re checking our bank accounts to make our end-of-year donations. Some of these numbers will feel intuitive; others will require a little more calculation to make sure we get them right. Some numbers have both a deep resonance and evoke memories and emotions, while others are more practical, utilitarian, and precise.

Judaism is filled with mystical and special numbers – we can probably come up with multiple connections to numbers like forty (years of wandering in the desert, Moses’ number of days on Mt. Sinai), ten (number of commandments), four (just about everything at Pesach), eight (nights of Hanukkah, days of Sukkot), and so on. The number seventy is such a number – the Torah is said to be reflected in “seventy faces,” seventy elders joined Moses on Sinai, and, in this week’s portion Vayiggash, the text says that “The total of Jacob’s household who came to Egypt was seventy persons.” (Genesis 46:27)

The problem is that in verse 26, just beforehand, it says, “All the persons belonging to Jacob who came to Egypt – his own issue, aside from the wives of Jacob’s sons – all these persons numbered 66.” The way we can reconcile these texts and bring the number up to seventy is to draw focus to the phrase “who came to Egypt” – two of Joseph’s sons were born in Egypt, and two of Judah’s sons died in Canaan, so since those four didn’t count, 66 + 4 = 70. It certainly seems like the text wanted to emphasize the round number of seventy rather than counting each family member. “Seventy” had emotional evocations; 66 didn’t.

Numbers help us give a better answer to the question, “How many of these things are there?” Whether it’s people, apples, books, or items that total more than about four, our brains can’t really get a precise number. Yet, we do need to have a numerical sense. A new study in Nature helps illuminate how and why some numbers are easier for us to process than others. In an article for Quanta, writer Yasemin Saplakoglu explained why we have a numerical sense, even if, once we get past about four, we struggle to immediately and accurately count:

This innate number sense is…critical to survival, increasing an animal’s chances of finding food, avoiding predators, and ultimately reproducing. “It simply pays off for the survival of an animal to be able to differentiate numeric quantities,” said Andreas Nieder, the chair in animal physiology at the University of Tübingen in Germany, who co-led the new study. The fact that this ability is found in diverse animals, from insects to humans, suggests that it arose a long time ago, and its neural basis has interested cognitive scientists for decades.

I will admit – it took me several minutes to double-check all the names listed in this section of the Torah and whether they actually added up to 66 (they did). But the number “seventy” in Judaism connotes wholeness, completion, and entirety, and that’s why the text chooses to say, “the total of Jacob’s household was seventy persons.” And indeed, as we’ll be reading in just a few weeks, that group of seventy grew,  becoming a great nation, helping each other to survive and thrive, even in a foreign land. And like many lists and counts in the Torah, there are both exact numbers, with a goal of internal accuracy (such as the census that starts the Book of Numbers), and symbolic numbers, such as Moses’ life living to the ideal 120 years old.

As we start to count down to the end of 2023, numbers will be everywhere. Yes, some of them will need to be precise, and while there is a difference between, say, 66 and 70, our minds are attuned to those numbers that truly mean something. So may these last few days of 2023 – as we calculate, count, and reflect – help us bring a sense of completion. May our numbers help us not only count what exists but also help us remember what truly counts.

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