Leading a nation of individuals


Bamidbar begins with a census of the Israelites. That is why this book is known in English as Numbers. But we note what appears to be a contradiction. On the one hand, Rashi says that the acts of counting in the Torah are gestures of love on the part of G-d:

“Because they are dear to Him, G-d counts them often. He counted them when they were about to leave Egypt. He counted them after the Golden Calf to establish how many were left. And now that He was about to cause His presence to rest on them [with the inauguration of the sanctuary], He counted them again” (Rashi, Bamidbar 1:1).

So we learn that when G-d initiates a census of the Israelites, it is to show that He loves them.

In contradiction to this, centuries later King David counted the people, but there was Divine anger and 70,000 people died. How can this be, if counting is an expression of love?

The Torah is explicit in saying that taking a census of the nation is fraught with risk:

“Then G-d said to Moshe, ‘When you take a census of the Israelites to count them, each must give to G-d a ransom for his life at the time he is counted. Then no plague will come on them when you number them’” (Shemos 30:11-12).

The answer to this apparent contradiction lies in the phrase the Torah uses to describe the counting: se’u et rosh, literally, “lift the head.” This is a strange expression. Biblical Hebrew contains many verbs meaning “to count”: limnot, lifkod, lispor, lachshov. Why does the Torah not use these simple words, instead of “lift the heads”?

The short answer is this: In any census or roll call, there is a tendency to focus on the total. A nation of 60 million people, a company with 100,000 employees, a sports crowd of 60,000. A total values the group or nation as a whole. The larger the total, the stronger the army, the more popular the team, the more successful the company. Counting devalues the individual and makes him or her replaceable. If one soldier dies in battle, another will take his place. If one person leaves the organization, someone else can be hired to do his or her job.

Notoriously, crowds also have the effect of making the individual lose independent judgment. We call this “herd behavior,” and it sometimes leads to collective madness. In 1841, Charles Mackay’s classic study, Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, told of the South Sea Bubble that cost thousands their money in the 1720s, and the tulip mania in Holland when fortunes were spent on single tulip bulbs. The Great Crashes of 1929 and 2008 had the same crowd psychology.

Another great work, Gustav Le Bon’s The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind (1895) showed how crowds exercise a “magnetic influence” that transmutes the behavior of individuals into a collective “group mind.” As he put it, “An individual in a crowd is a grain of sand amid other grains of sand, which the wind stirs up at will.” People in a crowd become anonymous.

Their conscience is silenced. They lose a sense of personal responsibility. Crowds are prone to regressive behavior, primitive reactions and instinctual behavior. They are easily led by demagogues playing on fears and victimhood. Such leaders, he said, are “especially recruited from the ranks of those morbidly nervous excitable half-deranged persons who are bordering on madness,” a remarkable anticipation of Hitler.

Hence the significance of one remarkable feature of Judaism: its principled insistence — like no other civilization before — on the dignity and integrity of the individual. We believe that every human being is in the image and likeness of G-d.

The Sages said that every life is like a universe. Maimonides says each of us should see ourselves as if our next act could change the fate of the world. Every dissenting view is carefully recorded in the Mishnah. Every verse of the Torah is capable, said the Sages, of 70 interpretations. No voice is silenced. Judaism never allows us to lose our individuality in the mass.

There is a wonderful blessing to be said upon seeing 600,000 Israelites together: “Blessed are You, L-rd … who discerns secrets.” The Talmud explains that every person is different. Only G-d can enter the minds of each of us and know what we are thinking. Even in a crowd where, to human eyes, faces blur into a mass, G-d still relates to us as individuals.

That is the meaning of the phrase “lift the head” in the context of a census. G-d tells Moshe that there is a danger, when counting, that each individual will feel insignificant. “What am I? What difference do I make? I am a mere grain of sand on the seashore, dust on the surface of infinity.”

Against that, G-d tells Moshe to lift people’s heads by showing that they count; they matter as individuals. Indeed, in Jewish law a davar shebeminyan, something that is counted, sold individually rather than by weight, is never nullified even in a mixture of a thousand or a million others. In Judaism, taking a census must always signal that we are valued as individuals. We each have unique gifts. There is a contribution only I can bring.

To lift someone’s head means to show them favor, to recognize them. It is a gesture of love.

There is, however, a difference between individuality and individualism. Individuality means that I am a unique and valued member of a team. Individualism means that I am not a team player at all. I am interested in myself alone. Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam famously noted that in the United States, more people than ever are going bowling, but fewer than ever are joining teams. He called this trend “bowling alone.” MIT professor Sherry Turkle calls our age of Twitter, Facebook, and online friendships, “alone together.”

Judaism values individuality, not individualism. As Hillel said, “If I am only for myself, what am I?”

All this has implications for Jewish leadership. We are not in the business of numbers. The Jewish people always was small and yet achieved great things.

Judaism has a profound mistrust of demagogic leaders who manipulate the emotions of crowds. Moshe at the burning bush said, “I am not a man of words.” He thought this was a failing. In fact it was the opposite. Moshe did not sway people by his eloquence. Rather, he lifted them by his teaching.

A Jewish leader has to respect individuals. He or she must “lift their heads.”

However large the group you lead, you must always communicate the value you place on everyone. You must never sway a crowd by appealing to fear or hate. You must never ride roughshod over the opinions of others.

It is hard to lead a nation of individuals, but this is the most challenging, empowering, inspiring leadership of all.