Numbering the Dead in Northern Ireland
I was reading in the Radical Torah reflection for today of the prohibition on the numbering of the Israelite population. The point being made was that the counting of people invited some evil into the midst of the community, so the numbers given for each of the tribes are clearly estimates, nicely rounded into plump thousands.
The piece moved on to reflect on how we number the dead and displaced in humanitarian crises and how the sheer weight of the numbers can numb us to the tragedy. 5.4 million people dead in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Dear God! What does that mean? That’s the population that lives on this entire island.
In conclusion the verse containing the prohibition, from Exodus 30:12, is translated literally,
‘when you raise up the heads of the Israelite people’
which contrasts sharply with the translations we regularly use, which have some variation of ‘when you take a census…’ The significance of this translation is that in the numbering of the people the individual is not simply subsumed into the faceless tally, instead each face is seen as the head is lifted and the individual person is recorded.
Thus it is with each person who has been killed in the dirty war that has prevailed here in Northern Ireland and into which we find ourselves plunged mercilessly once again. Not only each one killed, including Mark Quinsey, Patrick Azimkar and Stephen Carroll in the last few days, but ten times that many who have been seriously injured and the countless numbers in their circles who have been affected.
It is the stuff of nightmares to raise up the head of each victim, to take note of each face. Many would prefer they are lost in the anonymity of a census. But God doesn’t allow us that luxury, for to do that is to invite a worse calamity on our community, which is scarcely imaginable.