Find Meaning in What Counts, Not the Counting

Nov 03, 2021 / 28 Heshvan, 5782

Find Meaning in What Counts, Not the Counting

Rabbi David Stern | Clergy Address | Nov. 2021

We Jews love counting. The creation story in Genesis gives us a world born through counting: “And there was evening and there was morning, a first day…a second day…a third day.” In modern Hebrew, the days of the week do not have names like Monday or Tuesday. Except for Shabbat, they are simply known by their number: Day One, Day Two, all the way through Day Six. We count the 10 days of repentance from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur. We count the 49 days of the Omer linking Passover to Shavuot. We count the seven days of Passover and the eight days from the beginning of Sukkot through Simchat Torah. And of course, starting this year on November 28, we will count the eight nights of Hanukkah.

So it may be surprising that Judaism also displays some resistance to counting. The most prominent example is our tradition’s ambivalence towards the Biblical military census: Counting heads was seen by our rabbis as an act of human presumption, a risk that a robust count of potential soldiers might cause our leaders to rely on human force rather than God’s power in battle.

The sages of the Talmud give us some interesting wisdom on the relationship between counting and blessings. Upon entering one’s silo to measure its grain, they teach, one should recite a blessing of thanks even before measuring. In fact, they say, if you measure first and bless afterwards, your blessing is in vain. Why? Because, Rabbi Yitzchak teaches, “Blessing is not found in something that has been weighed, nor in something that has been measured, nor in something that has been counted. Blessing is found only in something that is hidden from the eye.” (BT Ta’anit 8b)

What is the Talmud trying to teach us? Even in a Judaism that loves counting, and especially in our American society so enamored with metrics and quantitative strategies, our rabbis seem to be warning about linking a sense of gratitude to measurable outcomes. On the path of faith, should the farmer’s gratitude to God be titrated based on the measure of his grain?

And what happens to us when we always place measurement first? In the words of contemporary teacher Rabbi Jonathan Slater, “Once we begin measuring what we have, we begin to compare ourselves to others and perhaps see only what we lack; or having some prompts us to want more.”

In other words, “compare and contrast” may work as a ninthgrade essay prompt, but it is a dangerous impulse on the spiritual path. Whatever we might be tempted to count — from material wealth, to “likes” or comments on our social media posts, to the number of favors we have done for someone else compared to what they have done for us — we should remember that “blessing is not found … in something that has been counted.” Even as a given tally may mount up, our spirits shrink in the very act of tallying.

When a wedding couple stands under the chuppah, their love and trust begin in already shared experience, but are truly expressed in their standing together for what they cannot yet measure. When we write an obituary for a loved one, no numbers — not how many causes they supported, not how many people attended the service, not how many grandchildren they had — could tabulate the blessing that they were in our lives. We are like the farmer in his silo: the sense of blessing precedes and transcends our capacity for metrics and measurements.

This month, as happens in a year when the Jewish holidays are early, Thanksgiving and Hanukkah almost coincide: Thanksgiving arrives on November 25, and the first night of Hanukkah on November 28. This year’s calendar reflects the wisdom of the Talmud: thank first, count later. Or maybe Judaism’s wisdom is even more contrarian: “Don’t count your blessings!” Yes, be grateful for them in every moment and with every breath. But recognize that even the most common blessing is in fact immeasurable, because “blessing is found in something that is hidden from the eye,” because the deepest blessings of our lives are far greater than any counting could be.