BY RACHEL LaVICTOIRE / AJT //
It’s 1:06 a.m. on the fifth day of the fifth month of the year, and I’m working in a room with all three light switches on and all four windows cracked open. My backpack and I are occupying two of the four wooden chairs that surround a wooden table, which is covered with three laptops, two empty to-go boxes, four textbooks and one bulk-sized bag of cheddar popcorn.
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My two friends and I have been sitting in an 8-by-10 study room on the fourth floor of a 9-year-old dorm building for 3 hours and 30 minutes. Between the three of us, we have seven exams in the next four days. Nick has 73 more pages to read; his one and only exam is in two days.
And in five days, I’ll load up my Ford’s 14-gallon gas tank and start the 583-mile drive back to Atlanta.
Or, I could tell you this:
Right now, it’s a Saturday night in May, and I’m sitting in a study room with two of my friends. Only, I don’t even know if I can even say I’m with them; the comfort of good company faded to an illusion two hours ago when we jammed headphones in our ears and put up our Apple-stamped walls of isolation.
Occasionally, we’ll come back long enough to share an interesting fact with the group – an artist who made a skull out of diamonds, or the optical illusion that made Will Ferrell seem like a really large elf. Mostly we keep our heads down, crunching numbers and scribbling notes, hoping to condense the hundreds of pages of accounting, art history, psychology and other such subjects into a box so small we just might be able to store it in our heads long enough to get through final exams.
Which version sticks with you more?
Both descriptions provide fairly similar details: where I am, who I’m with and what we’re doing. And although it’s safe to say that the approach used in the latter version is probably the more common, I’m not sure that it’s actually the better one.
Why? Because numbers are powerful. They allow for that striking difference between a “really tall” kid in your class and a 6-foot, 7-inch college freshman; or for the specificity that turns a “rare” disease into a one that you have a 1 percent chance of getting.
Numbers are powerful in their objectivity and relatability – they have no bias and no language barrier. We all speak in numbers.
And maybe that’s why this week, in Bamidbar (the 34th parsha), G-d called for a census. He spoke to Moses, saying:
“Take the sum of all the congregation of the children of Israel, by families following their fathers’ houses; a head count of every male according to the number of their names. From twenty years old and upwards…you shall count them by their legions you and Aaron (Numbers 1:2-3).”
Moses and Aaron did as they were told and reported back with counts of each tribe: tribe of Reuben, 46,500; tribe of Simeon, 59,300; tribe of Gad, 45,650; tribe of Judah, 74,600: tribe of Issachar, 54,400; tribe of Zebulun, 57,400: tribe of Ephraim, 40,500; tribe of Manasseh, 32,200: tribe of Benjamin, 35,400: tribe of Dan, 62,700; tribe of Asher, 41,500; and the tribe of Naphtali, 53,400.
Note that the Levites are missing from this count because G-d gave specific instructions regarding their tribe, details that might be the focus of a posting down the road. But back to the parsha…
Only after all this number crunching did Moses and Aaron give the total: 603,550 children of Israel, 20 years and older. G-d then asked for the division of the Israelites into four legions:
“The children of Israel shall encamp each man by his…some distance from the Tent of Meeting they shall encamp (Numbers 2:2).”
So, Moses and Aaron went and returned once more with new numbers: in the legions of Judah’s camp were 186,400; in the legions of Reuben’s camp were 151,450; in the legions of Ephraim’s camp were 108,100; and in the legions of Dan’s camp were 157,600. And again, it’s said, the total number of the legions of the camps was 603,550.
And this brings about another power of numbers: the property of conservation – regardless of how a number is divided, its value is constant.
The same holds true for the Israelites. After being divided into tribes and brought back together, there were 603,550 children of Israel. After being divided into legions and then brought back together, there they were again, 603,550 children of Israel.
It’s not relative – no one man becomes more or less valuable because of his surroundings. Rather, we are all equal, all counted as one person. It may be difficult to hear, that regardless of what we accomplish or aspire to accomplish, we’re still each just one person among hundreds of thousands of others. But it’s also an invaluable concept.
Be kind and respectful to others, don’t be afraid to fail, balance work and play; these ideas to live by are all enhanced by the idea that we are only one person.
It’s easy, especially in a whirlwind of stress and craze, to become focused on your own microcosm, full of the subjective experiences that you and your family and friends share every day.
Taking one step back, though, spending “sooo much time” studying “everything” in order to pass the “really important test” is actually just a small fraction of your 24-hour day spent reading a few chapters of a subject, so that you – one of 300 other students in your class – can pass a single 50-question test.
Thus, perhaps numbers give us the perspective, the frame of reference, we need.
Rachel LaVictoire (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a graduate of the Davis Academy and Westminster High School, recipient of the prestigious Nemerov Writing and Thomas H. Elliott Merit scholarships at Washington University of St. Louis and an active member of Temple Emanu-El and the Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta. She was recently named to the board of St. Louis Hillel.