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Drowning in Numbers

Moses, Madoff, and the comforts of counting

Liel Leibovitz
May 22, 2009

My fourteenth year was one of small revelations. An older relative made me watch The Lady from Shanghai, which taught me that cinema can deliver much more than the sound and the fury of Rambo, Robocop, and their sort. An inspired friend bought me a tape of The Velvet Underground & Nico, which taught me that great music can tug at your mind, your heart and your groin all at once. And a maniacal Iraqi dictator launched a battery of Scud tactical ballistic missiles in the general vicinity of my neighborhood, which taught me that when it came to Jews, numbers matter a whole lot.

With Saddam’s steely emissaries raining on us for weeks, I, like many other Israelis, began to prepare myself for a bloated death toll. Some analysts spoke of dozens of casualties, others feared hundreds. The reality, we soon learned with great relief, was starkly different, and the antiquated weapons—not more than aged pipes, really, groaning under the burden of their long and strenuous flight—caused some damage to property and claimed the lives of two Israelis, with an additional three suffering fatal heart attacks as a result of war-related stress. Five people, I thought, five people was not bad at all. What I felt was relief. But judging by the media’s extensive coverage of the five victims, one could easily think that Baghdad’s attacks had annihilated a substantial portion of the population: profiles of the deceased were reported at length, their weeping relatives interviewed, government officials filmed rushing to comfort the bereaved.

I asked my mother why all the fuss. Trying my best to sound like a grown man, I said we should be grateful, as we’ve clearly avoided a much larger catastrophe. Five casualties, I stated in a voice that I thought was confident and macho and mature, is a price we could live with.

“No,” my mother said, so softly her words were almost drowned out by the din of the television news, “it’s not.” Her look suggested that our conversation was over, that I didn’t—couldn’t—understand. I went back to my room burning with shame, and listened to Lou Reed wail about heroin until the next missile hit later that afternoon.

My mother’s words, however, refused to leave me. It didn’t take much thought to realize the context of her sentiment, namely that each life was sacred and every needless loss a tragedy and five deaths just as horrible as five hundred. But the piercing gaze with which she stabbed me as she spoke suggested there was more to it than that. Confused, I sought distraction in mindless entertainment.

Like most Israelis during those strange days of that phantom war, I, too, was taken with Zehu Ze, the Israeli equivalent of Saturday Night Live, magnified a hundredfold by the fact that our televisions carried just one, state-run channel, and that Zehu Ze was, at the time, its solitary comedic offering. The most popular recurring character was the Babba Booba, a loopy rabbi who claimed to predict the war’s outcome using gematria, the Jewish system of assigning numerical values to letters and conducting complex calculations to try and unlock the hidden meaning of words—the meaning, mystics believe, that only numbers can reveal.

The skits were hilarious, but for a change, I wasn’t laughing. That crazed comedian, I thought, was demonstrating the same point my mother just had. He was demonstrating how, in times of crisis, we begin to ignore words and place our faith in numbers. Five casualties, then, becomes a national tragedy, not just because of the devastating sorrow of five families, but because the number itself, five, has become our albatross. The analysts might have had their hypothetical hundreds, but the concrete, real-life five somehow seemed like a more menacing, ominous figure that terrified us far more.

Numbers are also what this week’s parasha is all about. It begins with a strange request. Speaking to Moses, God demands the following: “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.” One would think that a deity that had only recently torn the sea in half should not have much difficulty with a simple census. Still, the Lord insists, and the Israelites begin their counting.

Although the parasha itself, with its minute detail of each tribe’s count, is dry and technical—54,400 to Issachar! 57,400 to Zebulun!—there’s something irresistibly charming about imagining this tiny nation, lost in the wilderness, taking the time to painstakingly count each and every one of their numbers.

They had to, of course. Like Israelis during the Gulf War, numbers were all the Israelites had to go on in order to make sense of their other-worldly situation. This is why God instructs them to conduct a census. There’s nothing else he can offer by way of tangible reassurance save for ordering his chosen few to count their ranks and take solace in the figures. When we can’t comprehend or control our circumstances, we cling to the numbers, simple and incontrovertible, with all our might. Just think about the significance, almost mystical in its own right, that the number six million has taken on in our collective imagination. Call it the gematria of crisis.

Which, of course, suggests an interesting new facet to Bernie Madoff’s crimes. The betrayal of trust, the financial ruination, the savage blow to the global economy, all are valid points. But there’s also this: for millennia, Jews have taken comfort in numbers, turning to digits when words were somehow not enough. And Madoff violated this haven, using his prowess to create a false and dangerous trap that lured so many of us to damnation. Had he been around for the Israelites’ census, he might have reported Issachar as eight hundred thousand men strong, and Zebulun as having crossed the one million mark.

Madoff, then, is learning what Moses had already gleaned from God, what I learned the hard way from my mother, and what us Jews seem to have embedded in our genetic codes: false numbers are far worse than false words.

Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.

Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.