This week we open the book of B'midbar. A bit of Hebrew grammar: Some people call this book (and this parasha) Bamidbar. "Bamidbar" means "in the desert". "B'midbar", which is actually the word in the first line of the book, means "in the desert of." So if you're accustomed to saying one word, your Hebrew-trained mind pulls you to "Bamidbar." But the opening words of the book say that God spoke to Moshe "b'midbar See-nai" -- in the desert of Sinai. I think originally, people referred to the book by the phrase.
In Talmudic literature, the book is called Chumash Ha-pekudim, "the one-fifth-book about Counting." Hence the name Numbers. Parashat B'midbar is for the most part a census of the tribes and clans of the Israelites, along with a map of their marching camp.
By the Torah's count there were about 600,000 Israelite males of military age at this time, around 1250 B.C.E. That would mean a total population of at least two million. So how is it that there are only 13-14 million Jews today? What happened to God's promise to Avraham, that your descendents will be innumerable like the sands on the sea or the stars in the sky?
So powerful was that promise that in the Tanakh it was considered a desecration of God's name to conduct a census, except like in Numbers by explicit instruction from God. For any enumeration would by definition refute God's promise. In Judaism, we count a lot of things -- days between Pesach and Shavuot, days from the new moon to the festival, candles for Chanuka, minutes before sunset to light Shabbat candles, blessings said in a given day. Mostly we count time, and we do that in order to help us fulfill the mitzvot.
We do count people -- how could we not after the Shoah? But we do it with caution, even sadness. In many places when people count heads to see if there's enough for a minyan, they say "Not-one, not-two..." or they use the words of a biblical verse that has ten words.
We count people this way (or not at all), to make sure we don't dwell on our smallness. Our mission is to do the mitzvot that are before us. At this moment, what does it matter if there are also five million or fifty or five-hundred million other Jews? Our mission is at the same time to be or lagoyim, "a light to the nations." Small flames can illuminate wide areas.
We love to hear the stats about how many Jewish Nobel winners there have been, and as of this week we may even look forward to one-third of the U.S. Supreme Court! These too we count with caution. Not the prize, but the knowledge; not the Justices, but the amount of justice.
The Jewish people need not be the largest. Our task is what economists call "the multiplier effect". At the moment, at least, that's the only way our impact, if not our numbers, can be "like the sands of the sea or the stars of the sky."