Numbers, Numbers Everywhere: Does Any One Person Really Matter?

Brain Pickings, created by Maria Popova, is my favorite source for cool, thought-provoking stuff. In her columns culled from the thoughts of auspicious thinkers on deep topics, I often encounter the sad advice from enlightened minds that we should just accept the short-lived brilliance of our tiny lives. When it’s over, it’s over.

And they admit, despite their adherence to their core beliefs, that they wish it were otherwise. Alan Lightman describes our lovely but pitifully brief existence:

“And I think of the night-blooming cereus, a plant that looks like a leathery weed most of the year. But for one night each summer its flower opens to reveal silky white petals, which encircle yellow lacelike threads, and another whole flower like a tiny sea anemone within the outer flower. By morning, the flower has shriveled. One night of the year, as delicate and fleeting as a life in the universe.”

(Here’s the full article:

There seems to be an avalanche of agreement on this in the collective intelligence of admirable men and women. Perhaps we can gain comfort from the increasing numbers of very smart people who embrace this vision of a future that is no future at all. At least we’ll all go down to destruction and the nothingness of death together, right?

I sit here watching my little granddaughters at play. They are full of life, aching to grow up and drive cars, write books, take trips, bear children, and pursue meaningful careers. True to Lightman’s view, my body is decaying while theirs is blossoming, and it will all happen in the blink of an eye. I’ll be lucky if any of my acts of love or pontifications to them will be remembered into their adult years or by any of their children just a scant few decades from now.

Juxtapose this hard reality to what the Jewish world is reading this week—the beginning of the book of Numbers, the portion of Torah where most eyes begin to glaze over with the endless lists of names and numbers from each tribe and lineage. Why are these passages even here? How does such a mind-numbing list fit with truly sacred stuff like the Passover and the Ten Commandments?

I had an epiphany about that a few years ago. These ancient names and head counts that don’t resonate with me SHOULD resonate with me in a powerful way. They are evidence that not one soul goes uncounted or unnoticed in God’s sight. They matter.

To the Creator of the universe, nature is not screaming, as Lightman writes, “at the top of her lungs that nothing lasts, that it is all passing away.” Truth seems to meet us at every turn down both of these well-worn roads. But it cannot be just a matter of perspective whether we shrivel up to nothingness at the end of our lives or if we live on in another way, safe and loved, preserved and protected.

But more on that age-old argument next time.

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