Safety of the Crowd
Comrades! We must abolish the cult of the individual decisively, once and for all. -Nikita Khrushchev
God instructs Moses to count the nation of Israel. However, the methodology of the counting is unusual. God instructs Moses to count by collecting a half shekel coin from each adult male of the twelve tribes of Israel (excluding the Levites) as opposed to simply counting how many men are in each tribe. There is actually a prohibition to directly count the individuals.
To this day when counting people, we don’t point at them and count 1, 2, 3, 4, etc. For example, when trying to ascertain if there are ten men for a prayer quorum (a minyan), we traditionally count by saying the words of a verse known to have ten words.
Rabbeinu Bechaye on Exodus 30:12 (Ki Tisa) wonders as to this apprehensive approach to counting. He explains that there is an inherent safety in being part of the crowd. When we stand out, when we are counted as individuals, we actually invite divine scrutiny and justice as to our actions, and invariably would be found to be failing. He gives the example from the beginning of the story of Ruth, when the man we know to be Elimelech travels and is mentioned merely as a man of Bethlehem, nothing occurs to him. When he is finally mentioned by name, in the next phrase we find that he dies.
Similarly, when the prophet Elisha offers to intercede on behalf of his hostess the woman of Shunam, her response is no thanks, “I dwell among my people.” She doesn’t want attention brought to her personally; she prefers the anonymity of the crowd.
This is not only for protection from harm. Rabbeinu Bechaye expounds that blessings and even miracles can occur to a person thanks to the merit of the crowd. This thinking even goes to the level of objects. He quotes the Talmudic dictum that there is no blessing upon what is counted. When the amount of grain in the granary is unknown, there is still the possibility of a supernatural intervention to increase the amount. Once the grain has been counted or measured, no further blessing is likely. Furthermore, the evil eye tends to fall upon what is measured, weighed or counted.
So while Judaism gives a prominent place, role and value to the individual, it also recognizes the attraction, advantage and strength of strongly identifying with the crowd (a good crowd!), keeping a low profile and not drawing undue attention to oneself.
May we attach ourselves and stick to the best crowds we can find.
Shabbat Shalom & Purim Sameach,
To the United Synagogue of Great Britain and particularly to the members of their Chevra Kadisha for the incredible work that they perform day after day, year after year.