I am sure it is merely coincidence that the week we begin reading the book of Numbers in the Torah an article appears in the New York Times about how obsessed we’ve become with metrics (measuring and quantifying everything in our lives). The Bruce Feiler penned piece appeared under the title ‘Statisticians 10, Poets 0,’ and described the rapidly growing trend in our society to track and describe everything – and I mean everything – with numbers. The opening paragraphs of the article revolve around a new smart phone app that somehow tracks the duration and intensity of sexual experiences. The data from the app is uploaded to a web site, which you can log onto to see, in the form of a map of the country, which states have the best sex. If you have to know it is New Mexico. Alaska came up on the short end of the stick, ranking dead last.
Yes, this is an extreme example. But it is also the tip of the iceberg. Today we measure how many steps we walk daily, what our sleep patterns are, our heart rhythms, of course our weight (some things never change), and who could forget the number that confronts so many of us each morning when we log onto our Facebook accounts, namely how many ‘friends’ we have (in case you are wondering, the average is 338). Feiler goes on to show how metrics, more and more, rule in every area of life – health, social media, sports, social science, lifestyle. It is a reflection of the impulse behind ‘big data.’ If you can just get enough information, you can know everything, and the mysteries of life – why we do what we do – will be resolved, once and for all.
I can’t help but think it is all some kind of big con game. Numbers can tell a story, but I firmly believe only part of the story. Case in point, a man I recently buried. Long life, living into his late 80s. Three children. Six grandchildren. Multiple great grandchildren as well. Long marriage, close to fifty years. It all looks pretty good on paper, and most folks, seeing those numbers, would say ‘sign me up.’ But the story behind the numbers was much more complicated. There was an earlier failed marriage that he never was able to come to terms with. There was a deep sense of unease, a restlessness that never allowed him to feel he had what he was looking for. Professional success came and went. Family relationships were challenging and rarely satisfying. His numbers were great, but his life was in many ways difficult.
Judaism has long been uncomfortable with counting people. In the Bible, a census was completed by using a half shekel to represent individuals, so as not to directly count human beings. King David commissioned a census of the people, and was punished for it by God. Even today the tradition is to not directly count individuals using numbers when checking if the required ten are present for a prayer service. Numbers can be misleading. I had a statistics professor in graduate school who told us that statistics are like a bikini – they reveal general curves but conceal essentials. After all, how do you quantify laughter, love, Shakespeare, Torah, sadness, how you feel on a bright summer morning, or when you watch a baby take her first steps. Somewhere in all of those things, and so many others, is a sense of what it means to live a human life. And that is something the numbers will never be able to capture.