In Judaism, every human being counts

This week’s Torah Portion is called Bamidbar, which means “in the wilderness,” and it is the first portion in the book of Numbers. Not too surprisingly, the action takes place in the wilderness of Sinai and concerns a census of the Israelites. God commands Moses: “Take a census of the whole Israelite community by the clans of its ancestral houses, listing the names of every male, head by head. You and Aaron shall record them by their groups, from the age of twenty years up, all those in Israel who are able to bear arms.” We then get a list of the census takers for every tribe except for the Levites, which we find out at the end of the chapter were accounted for separately, beginning with verse 47: “The Levites, however, were not recorded among them by their ancestral tribe. For the Eternal had spoken to Moses, saying: Do not on any account enroll the tribe of Levi or take a census of them with the Israelites. You shall put the Levites in charge of the Tabernacle of the Pact, all its furnishings, and everything that pertains to it…” The Israelites, whose main qualification seems to be an ability to fight in the army, are numbered, but the Levites, who serve God by taking care of the Tabernacle, are numbered in a separate census for men between the ages of 30 and 50 who were eligible to care for the Tabernacle. The census was all very particular, rigorously spelled out and shockingly incomplete.
Who gets counted and who is left out? If you’re an Israelite, only men age 20 and above get counted and only if you’re able to bear arms. Women don’t get counted. Children and teens don’t get counted. Those men too old to bear arms don’t get counted. Those whose disabilities prevent them from fighting don’t get counted. If you’re a Levite, only men between the ages of 30 and 50 get counted and then only if you don’t have a physical disability. Nobody else need apply. It is as if the only ones who mattered are those who could serve specific roles, either as an Israelite soldier or a Levite keeper of the holy objects, though that could not be further from the truth. Where would the soldiers be if there weren’t those who stayed behind to prepare the food, raise the children, and care for those who couldn’t care for themselves? How would the Levites serve God by taking care of the holy objects, if there weren’t others to take care of their physical needs?
Too often society decides who counts and who does not. Who has worth to society and who isn’t even worthy of mention. It is an exclusivist view of society that we must struggle against. This is a time when I look at Torah and say to myself, we must learn from the mistakes of the past. The Bible acts as if only the soldiers and priests had any value to the function of society and ignores all the other tasks that keep society going. We must recognize that people who stay home to raise children have tremendous value to society, even if they aren’t paid in cash or aren’t highly paid. In the Bible, if you were elderly or unable to walk, you were not counted. How many places in our society are inaccessible because of stairs or other obstacles that are barriers to those who have difficulty walking? If it is possible, we should clear away those barriers.
But it’s not just about physical barriers. It’s also about psychological ones as well. There are times when people who are different from us make us uncomfortable, and our instinct is to push them away, marginalize them, not count them in society. Yet we must struggle against that instinct. There are those in our society who are homeless, there are those who are hungry, and our instinct is to turn away because their suffering makes us uncomfortable. Yet we must see them as human beings who have a place in society and not avert our eyes.
This Torah portion is all about who counts and who does not. We must never forget the basic humanity and dignity of every person in our society despite differences in physical and mental abilities or economic class. Each and every person counts in our society and has their role to play.
Rabbi Ben Sternman is the spiritual leader of Adat Chaverim in Plano and the vice-president of the Rabbinic Association of Greater Dallas.

This Post Has One Comment

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    Isaac H

    What is the agenda of this article?

    It’s superficial, and reads something like this:
    – this weeks Torah portion excludes people
    – the Torah is outdated (“This is a time when I look at Torah and say to myself, we must learn from the mistakes of the past.”)
    – we should be inclusive

    The author’s tone undermines a bigger theme of Bamidbar, and the upcoming holiday of Shavuot, which is “achdut”, or Jewish unity.

    Start with a basic understanding of the Torah portion:
    – The Bamidbar census relates to counting men for military abilities. What, we should send women and children to war?
    – The Levite census relates to political leadership. Don’t we live in a country where the President needs to be 35+ years old?

    This was my Bar Mitzvah parsha 20 years ago (I grew up in DFW and we affiliated with reform synagogues & summer camps) . I remember my takeaway: the Torah is teaching us that every Jew counts. My speech focused on the growing elderly population (baby boomers) and how we needed to take care of them.

    I worry that a Bar/Bat Mitzvah student today will hear this rabbi and take a more negative spin, or use his subtle rebuke of the Torah to fit an agenda around “inclusiveness”.

    PS. Counting in the Torah is for social/political reasons. When you count, count the men. This doesn’t undermine women, who are very present in the personal/emotional domain throughout the Torah. See Rabbi Sacks for more: http://rabbisacks.org/covenant-conversation-5770-bemidbar-the-personal-v-the-political/

    PPS. There are also deeper explanations in Chassidic and Kabbalistic works of why certain people weren’t counted. These all seek to expound upon the Torah, rather than contradict it.

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