Peter Salovey, who is stepping down this month as president of my alma mater, Yale University, was my freshman psychology teacher thirty years ago. The course was popular. Hundreds of students took it. 

Salovey was always quick with a joke. Before the final, I remember him telling us the story of a huge lecture hall full of students writing their exams, much like the one we were about to take. As time is winding down, a handful of students are finishing up. “Ten minutes left,” the professor calls out. A few finish and hand in their exam books. “Five minutes.” More finish. “One minute.” At this point, a single student is the last one writing–and he’s still going at a feverish pace. 

“Time’s up, pencils down,” the professor calls. The student is still writing. 

The professor shrugs, picks up the pile of exam books, and starts heading to the door. As she passes the student she says, “Last chance.” Still writing. The professor walks to the door of the lecture hall and the student races up to her. “Sorry,” she says, “you missed your chance.”

“Do you know who I am?” the student asks.

“What do you mean, do you know who I am?” the professor responds. “You went beyond time.”

“Do you know who I am?” the student asks again, more stridently.

“Look kid, I don’t care who your parents are or how important you think you are–the same rules apply to everyone.”

“Do you know who I am?” the student asks one more time.

“No,” she says.

At that, the student lifts up the pile of exam books in the professor’s arms, stuffs his in the middle of it, and races out of the room before she can figure out which exam book was his.

Professor Salovey told this story to ease some tension in the room before our final exam, but of course it reflects a deeper truth: We can often find ourselves in big, bureaucratic systems that render us nameless and faceless. And while those systems can sometimes provide advantages, they can also come at a cost. The advantages can include economies of scale, providing many more people access to valuable knowledge and experiences at an affordable rate. The disadvantages can include a lack of intimacy, a thinning of communal bonds, and ultimately both the capacity for and willingness to engage in abuse of the system.

The Book of Numbers, which we begin reading this week, marks an inflection point in the Torah. It is a book of generational transition, as the generation of the exodus dies out and the next generations come of age. And, with its multiple countings of the Israelites, the feeling tone of the more intimate stories of Genesis and at least early Exodus finally and fully gives way to a much larger, more corporate sense of a nation ready to assume the responsibilities of self-governance in the promised land.

Instructing Moses to take a census, the Holy One uses a fascinating phrase: Moses is not to count the people simply according to their number, but instead b’mispar shemot, the “number of their names” (Num. 1:2). The 16th century Italian commentator Rabbi Ovadiah Sforno observes that this unusual formulation suggests “the names of the individuals reflected their specific individuality, in recognition of their individual virtues.” This census simultaneously took cognizance of both the numerical scope of the people and each person’s uniqueness–an unusual kind of counting.

There would seem to be a connection between this kind of counting and the counting we do in mindfulness practice: Not simply logging minutes of practice, but aiming to be aware and attentive in each moment as it arises, present to the uniqueness of this particular time, place, and experience. That kind of practice can help us see our lives and those of other beings more fully. It can help us to humanize other people, avoid instrumentalizing them or relating to them as numbers without names–but instead to live with the awareness that every person has a name and a story. As so many forces in our world push us toward namelessness, facelessness, and dehumanization, this is a teaching we need to learn and practice again and again.

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