In The Counting House


Candlelighting, Readings:
Shabbat candles: 7:47 p.m.
Torah reading: Numbers 1:1-4:20
Haftarah: Hosea 2:1-2:22
Sabbath ends: 8:52 p.m.


I know it’s census time when I ride the subway. The ads argue, “If we don’t know how many people we have, how do we know how many trains we need?” Maybe they should just take the morning rush.

Then there’s the Jewish census in the Book of Numbers, where instead of pulling in numbers, Moses goes for the money; a capital campaign without the journal and dinner. He collects from everyone who’s 20 and over a silver half-shekel each, after which the coins are totaled up and only then do we have a head count. But if it’s not so we know how many trains, or hospitals, we need, then what for? To what end?

Looking back, we see that the first census took place a year earlier, right after the Exodus, when we needed a snapshot of how many ex-slaves were about to embark on this homeward trek to freedom and responsibility. A second census was after the Golden Calf, to see how many passed that test and survived.

Now, with the new Tabernacle in place, this third count determines who’s ready to roll up their sleeves and go to work. Instead of calling for entry-level résumés and references, Moses calls for money which is a shining symbol of what this new form of work is supposed to be about, namely, owning and giving.

A slave owns nothing since his time belongs to the slave owner or to the state. Nor does the slave own his skills, which are also under the jurisdiction of his owner or the state, both of whom determine where he can be most useful. For over 200 years in bondage, this is what we Jews came to know.

But now, things are changing.

It’s the wilderness, a year out of Egypt. Owning our own time for the first time, and choosing how to use it is one thing, but owning all the skills we possess is much tougher. It’s difficult to discover our God-given gifts and realize everything we can do. “I never knew I had it in me!” And to recognize our worth — in the broad community of those who heed God’s mandate to conquer the world — is a near-miracle to pull off.

Here, the silver coins tell us immediately that not only are we and our talents (from the Latin, French and German for money) valuable, but as long as we do our utmost — weighed on the scale of our own conscience — then in God’s eyes, all work is created equal. However, our ownership of our talent is only one side of the coin.

The new free man at the dawn of a new workplace must give those talents to the community. Whether we work on Wall Street, 47th Street, Seventh Avenue, Broadway or Madison Avenue, whatever our profession or trade, we’re giving what we have to the society around us. The wealth we acquire and the wisdom we gain as blessings from God are rewards for the decision to give.

Now you might argue that considering the money and possessions we legally accumulate, our work is less about ‘giving’ than ‘taking,’ which you atone for when you write a check to tzedakah and “give back,” as they say, even though tzedakah was never a means to appease guilt and make us feel good, nor a fire into which we throw back some capital gains to appease the gods and save our stocks. But why look for redemption or deliverance when all around us we’ve been earning our living by “giving” and using any extra wealth on hand to help needy people recover their own independence and sense of ownership?

Ownership of our talents and the way we share them with the world was, and still is, the tipping point between personal slavery and individual freedom. 

The census is calling. 

Shlomo Gewirtz is the author of the forthcoming, “Free To Compete.” He can be reached at



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