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September 15, 2021

We Count More Than We Know (Yom Kippur 5782)

Daniel S. Ross


Rabbi Daniel Ross, Kol Nidrei 5782

On New Year’s Day 2002,

I stepped on a scale and saw a number:


I was 14 years-old.


250 pounds.

This number defined me.

At the time,

my weight was the only thing that counted in my life.


Years later I was in a seminar where the teacher

asked each of us to reveal something about

our childhoods that everyone should know.  

And so I shared that when I was younger,

I was the fat kid.

After the session ended,

the teacher caught up with me.   

And he said something I’ll never forget.

He said “I was the fat kid too.”

“It really sticks with you.”     

And he added that today,

even though he has run multiple marathons,

were someone to come into the room

and ask all of the fat people to leave,

he would walk out.     


Now I’m the rabbi who does workouts

like The Ten Planks and Core Nidrei.

I’ve run a marathon too.   

But deep down, I’m still that fat kid.

It just sticks with you.


We count many things in life:

Pounds, dollars, friends.

Words, steps, years.   


To sum it all up,

we count the things that count to us.


But sometimes we forget

that numbers don’t tell the whole story.  

This summer,

I read a new book by Deborah Stone called

Counting: How We Use Numbers to Decide What Matters.

In her book, Stone writes that

“Too often [we use numbers] as data without a soul.”

And she urges us to remember that

“...numbers are made of stories; they are stories.”[1]


During these High Holy Days,

as we count 5782 years since the Creation of the World,

I want to suggest that

this is an essential message of this season.

We matter so much more than the numbers we count.


Indeed, this idea is deep

within the heart of one of the most prominent prayers

of these Days of Awe:

Un’taneh Tokef.


The most familiar words of Un’taneh Tokef

are its infamous litany:

“who by fire and who by water…

who by sword and who by beast…”

Its drama stirs our greatest fears.


But when we pay attention to the passage

that immediately precedes this parade of horribles,

we find that we feel something completely different.

In that verse,

Un’taneh Tokef gives us this calming pastoral image:

It’s the Day of Judgement.

The Book of Life is open.

The angels are trembling.

And God?

God is counting our souls

with the tender love of a shepherd.

כְּבַקָּרַת רוֹעֶה עֶדְרוֹ מַעֲבִיר צֹאנוֹ תַּחַת שִׁבְטוֹ

“As a shepherd seeks his flock

and passes the sheep under his staff…”

כֵּן תַּעֲבִיר וְתִסְפֹּר וְתִמְנֶה וְתִפְקֹד נֶפֶשׁ כָּל חָי

“So too do you pass and count and number and note

every living soul…”


The Hebrew verb “to count” in this verse is תִסְפֹּר.

And the word תִסְפֹּר,

shares the same root as the Hebrew word sippur,

which means “story.”   


There it is.


As we pass before God on this Day of Judgement,

we are more than just numbers--

we are stories.

We are stories with souls.


Just imagine it:

every year on Yom Kippur,

God counts each of our little souls

like a shepherd counts his sheep.

That’s how much each of us matters to God.


If only we felt that way.

If only we felt like we mattered that much.


But instead, so many of us feel like we don’t count at all.  
We feel anonymous on the subway.   

We feel left out of the party.   

We feel unseen by the people we see everyday.


And so on this Kol Nidrei night, I ask:

How can we soften the harshness of these stories

we’re telling ourselves?

What can we do to really know that we count?


And here, we return to Un’taneh Tokef.

Because fortunately for us,

the poetic words of this prayer present three practices

to temper the severity of our self-judgements:

They are teshuvah, tefillah, and tzedakah.


First: teshuvah.


My favorite grocery store is Trader Joe’s.

And for many years,

I noticed that every time I checked out,

my bill was always the same.

One time, I mentioned this to the cashier.

And her response was a surprisingly profound question:

“Do you always buy the same things?”

It’s a good point.

Why should we expect anything to change,

if we never try anything different?


This is the time of year

when we examine our lives.

The Hebrew term for this practice

is cheshbon ha-nefesh.

Literally, an “accounting of the soul.”

And the first word cheshbon

happens to be same word we use

for the bill we get at the grocery store.


Tonight, as we engage in our annual cheshbon ha-nefesh,

I’m wondering:

Are we mindful of what really matters to us.?

Are we counting the things we really want to count?

Or are we buying the same things at the grocery store

without even realizing it?


This is where teshuvah begins.


On the face of it,

teshuvah could seem like a way to discount ourselves.

We sin.

We feel ashamed.

We don’t matter.


But the great medieval philosopher Maimonides

offers us a different way to think about it.

He teaches that from Yom Kippur to Yom Kippur,

each of us should see not just ourselves,

but the entire world,

as perfectly balanced between goodness and guilt.

One more wrong and the scale dips towards guilt.

One more mitzvah, and the scale tilts towards goodness.

With each of our choices,

the fate of humanity hangs in the balance.[2]


Maimonides pushes us to ask ourselves:

What if each of our actions had cosmic consequences?

How would we act differently?

What kinds of deeds would we count?


This is why our tradition teaches

that the work of teshuvah begins

with an imperative to look closely at our spiritual ledgers,

and reconsider what we choose to add up.


In Un’taneh Tokef,

we read that God does not wish the death of sinners,

but rather urges them to do teshuvah and live on.

God never gives up on us.

Which means we must never give up on ourselves.

It’s never too late to count what really counts.


On to tefillah--prayer.


There’s a quintessential story about two Jews:

Greenberg and Goldberg

Every Shabbat they go to synagogue,

and they always sit next to each other.

Greenberg goes to shul to talk to God.

Goldberg goes to talk to Greenberg.


Prayer is a very personal exercise.

But according to Jewish tradition,

we are commanded to pray in community,

just like we’re doing tonight.

That’s because the communal practice of Jewish prayer

depends upon a minyan, a quorum of 10.

Without 10,

we can’t read from the Torah.

We can’t recite Bar’chu.

And we can’t say Kaddish.

If you want to know what it feels like to really count,

be the tenth person at a shiva minyan.


This is the part where I stop and make a PSA for

Central’s lay-led morning minyan.

If you want to be a part of a group of people

who truly count to each other,

you won’t find a better one out there.


But if daily prayer is not your thing--

don’t worry, I get it--

then at least I hope you take to heart this lesson of tefillah:

find a community in your life that counts.

A book club.

A softball team.

A soup kitchen.


The Talmud teaches that no matter what

we’re thinking or feeling during our tefillah,

when we pray with a community,

our words will be heard.[3]


Even in those moments of deepest despair

when we feel most unseen and alone,

we learn from our tradition

that when we choose to connect with other people

we count.


Finally, tzedakah--charity


Let me tell you the starfish story.

An old man was on

his regular morning walk along the beach,

when he noticed a little girl in the distance.

As he walked towards her,

he saw that scattered about the sand

was a sea of starfish.


As he got closer

he observed that the little girl

was dancing from starfish to starfish,

throwing them back into the ocean.

The old man asked the child what she was doing.

She replied, “I’m saving the starfish.”

The old man looked skeptical:

“But there are thousands of starfish on this beach.

What will it matter if you rescue one or two?”

The little girl took another starfish,

and tossed it over the waves.

“It mattered to that one.”


The Talmud teaches that tzedakah

is equivalent to all the other commandments combined.[4]

According to Jewish law,

even those who receive tzedakah

must give tzedakah.

But...our tradition also teaches that we are not permitted

to impoverish ourselves to perform this mitzvah.



we learn from the Torah that the poor of our own household

should take precedence in our giving.[1]

We are forbidden from neglecting our own needs.


We save as many starfish as we can.

Each one counts.

But when the sun gets too hot,

we go inside.

Because we count too.


In September 2002,

I turned 15.

In nine months, I had lost 70 pounds.


But the story of that number

is not the one I want to tell tonight.

Instead, I want to tell you a tale about

teshuvah, tefillah, and tzedakah.


I haven’t stepped on a scale in nearly two years.

I don’t count pounds any more.

Instead, I count numbers that matter more to me.

How fast I can run.

How much weight I can lift.
It took me over a year,

but I finally managed to eke out one pull-up.

My cheshbon ha-nefesh took a long time.

But ultimately,

I realized that my goodness--

and the weight of the world--

did not depend on those devilish digits.


This was the fundamental revision of my spiritual accounting:

I exercise, not because I loathe my body,

but because I love the amazing things it can do.

This was my teshuvah.


And over time, I’ve come to love working out most

with a community.

My morning minyan is a class at the gym.

We cheer each other on.

We notice when someone’s missing.

We do lots of synchronized burpees.

It’s kind of like Bar’chu, but sweatier.

This is my tefillah.


Finally, in addition to fitness,

I’ve picked up another passion: cooking.

This time of year,

I especially love making my mom’s noodle kugel.

So much butter, so much cream cheese,

and a shocking amount of sour cream.

But when it comes to cooking,

some things count more than calories:

tradition, family, and love.

And I never forget that nourishing others

begins with nourishing ourselves.

This is my tzedakah.


Sometimes it’s difficult to feel like we really matter.

To feel like we’re more

than a soulless collection of numbers.

And the gravity of our grim self-judgements

weighs us down.


But every year, U’netaneh Tokef comes to remind us

that during these High Holy Days

God counts each and every one of us.

That each and every one of us counts to God.

That we are more than just numbers, we are stories.

And that we matter more than we know.

G’mar chatimah tovah--

may we be inscribed for blessing in the Book of Life.


1 Counting by Deborah Stone

2 Hilchot Teshuvah 3:4

3 Taanit 9a

4 Bava Batra 9a

5 Bava Metzia 33a

Watch our sermon above or on Youtube, listen on Apple Podcasts and Spotify, or read the transcript above.