Although it is finally my turn I feel no delight when, without even glancing up, the post office clerk yells out “Next!” I understand that she has experienced a tiring day; maybe even a frustrating one but her strident summons dehumanizes me. I feel as if my identity has been stripped away and I am now just another item being mechanically processed in numerical order. That’s right; I have become just a number. Take a ticket. Next!
Turning a unique human being into an impersonal number can induce psychic disintegration. This is why the Nazis, in their evil twisted genius, tattooed a number onto the arms of their concentration camp victims. Though not in the same way, most militaries need to give new recruits identification numbers for organizational purposes, but to its great credit, the United States military places upon each soldier’s uniform, his name not his number.
These reflections while waiting at the post office helped me understand in a deep, visceral way why God reacted so angrily when King David counted the people of Israel as described in the last chapter of the book of Samuel.
“…and David’s heart troubled him after he had counted the people and he said to God, ‘I have sinned greatly in what I have done…”
(II Samuel 24:10)
Counting people, treating them as numbers, diminishes the uniqueness that makes each special. This would explain God’s displeasure at King David diminishing the people of Israel by counting them. But wait just one moment….How about these verses:
“...and God spoke to Moses saying, ‘When you count the heads of the Children of Israel according to their number’…”
“…and God spoke to Moses in the Sinai Desert in the Tent of Time….saying, ‘Count the heads of the entire congregation of Israel…’“
This seems to suggest that when Moses performs a census all is well but when King David does the same thing, God punished him. He died shortly thereafter, at the beginning of the book of Kings.
The insight from ancient Jewish wisdom’s interpretation of these events can profoundly help our own interactions and greatly enhance our ability to nurture friendships, romances, and yes, business relationships.
When King David counted Israel, it was for no special purpose other than the satisfaction of a ruler knowing how many people he ruled. David did wrong because this needless counting turned them into numbers and dehumanized God’s people.
When Moses counted the people in Exodus, it was in preparation for constructing the Tabernacle. In fact, one could say that the count built the tabernacle because the census was done by each person donating a silver coin. Rather than counting people, they then counted these coins and then donated the silver to the holy construction project.
When Moses counted the people again, it was in preparation for designing the encampments they would inhabit for forty years. Counting people for a specific purpose is different. It can be uplifting to know that you are part of a group that is preparing for a special mission.
The valuable insight that escalates these Biblical stories into life-affirming strategies is that we are advised to treat all friends and even random acquaintances as unique and irreplaceable. It is so easy to fall into the habit of using exactly the same greeting such as “Hi” or “Hello” for everyone we know. It is easy to ignore people’s names and address them as ‘dude,’ ‘buddy’ or ‘girlfriend’.
Our audio CD entitled The Ten Commandments: How Two Tablets Can Transform Your Life and Direct Our Nation, fully explains how God’s Sinai message to mankind revolves around the idea of making our relationships with all the people in our lives each as distinctive as our relationship with God. Studying this can help one make sure that each person with whom one interacts during the day feels that at that moment, he or she is the most important person in one’s life.
Realistically, of course, I did not expect the person behind the post office counter to address me by name. But after I noted the clerk’s lapel badge, when my turn finally came up, I smiled and said, “Hi, Annie, how you doing today?” I was pleased to hear her greet the person after me in line with a smile and the words, “Ma’am, I’m ready for you now.” I kept on smiling.