Wednesday, May 28, 2014
Moving From Counting Others to Making Others Count©
By Rabbi David Baum
I had an opportunity to sit with a colleague who I had not yet had the pleasure of getting to know last week at the Rabbinical Assembly convention. We had to do a delicate dance as the conversation pivoted to our work lives. Let me begin by stating a pet peeve I have with rabbis. What do you think the first question two pulpit rabbis ask each other after, what’s your name? How BIG is your congregation, or how many members is usually the first question. And yet, I have realized that it’s a necessary question. So I tried to ask a ton of other questions relating to programming, to other issues, but trying to avoid numbers became an impossible task. Finally, I relented, and was brutally honest, “Richard, I have to ask this question, but I hate having to do it: how many family units are in your congregation?” He said, “David, I know, I wish there was a better metric to get to know a group of people than numbers.”
We all know that censuses are vital for a society. It helps us figure out where we need to make certain investments; it helps governments figure out how much revenue they will bring in, and how much they will spend. They are vital, so why am I so hesitant to ‘count’ our people?
Because, even though we have so many censuses in the Torah, it’s still not something that we have looked so kindly upon.
There is even discussion as to whether counting someone for a minyan, by number, is a sin or not! The Talmud, in Pesachim 64b states, “God only sends His blessing to something hidden, not to something counted or weighed.” And of course, there are more reasons, but my reasons do not only come from our tradition, but from human nature.
What happens when we assign a number to someone? We dehumanize them. I learned this lesson when I was quite young as I looked at the numbers tattooed on my grandparents’ arms, both survivors of Auschwitz.
I suppose I should get used to counting, because we begin a new book today - BaMidbar, with a census – a counting of people, which is why this book can be summed up in one word – Numbers, or as the rabbis called it, Sefer HaP’kudim – The book of the Census.
Numbers 1:2 Take a census of the whole Israelite community by the clans of its ancestral houses, listing the names, every male, head by head.
The question that begs to be answered is, why? Why yet another census. We just had one, one month before this moment! (Exodus 30:11-16 and Exodus 28:25-26).
Rather than look at the counting here as a negative, the commentators look at it as a positive. Rashi’s answer: They were counted "Because they were dear to God, God counts them all the time--when they went out of Egypt, God counted them; when many of them fell for having worshipped the golden calf, God counted them to ascertain how many were left, when the Shechina (divine presence) was about to dwell among them, God again took their census, for on the first day of Nisan the Tabernacle was erected, and shortly afterward, on the first day of Iyar, God counted them."
Ramban mentions these two reasons and adds that, this census was different because when each person was counted, they actually had to say their names out loud, and Moses and Aaron would record them.
Rashi is telling us – each person is assigned a number, and even though we might use a census it to dehumanize one another, God uses the number as a way to make each one of us more special. Midrash Numbers Rabbah – compares God to a person who had collection of precious jewels – he counts them one by one in order to take pleasure of in their beauty and make sure they are safe.
Ramban adds to this – when each person was counted, they say their name – saying their name has an effect on them and their leaders as it highlights their individuality.
Here we see the power, worth, and dignity that each person is assigned.
The Mishnah (Sanhedrin 4:5) famously says that each if you destroy one soul, you lose an entire world, and if you save one soul, than you save the entire world, and the same mishnah goes on to say that Holy One, blessed be God, for one stamps out many coins with one mold, and they are all alike, but the King, the King of kings, the Holy One, blessed be God, stamped each person with the seal of Adam, and not one of them is like his or her fellow.
Can you imagine if we lived our lives with this in mind?
This year, the Jewish world was captivated by the Pew Report, a survey of American Jewish life. Every conference I have attended has quoted the report as if was the Torah itself! At the Rabbinical Assembly convention, many of our leaders thought they had to defend our movement, because, according to the report, only 18% of Jews in the U.S. consider themselves Conservative Jews.
I know the report is needed, but there is a danger to it: We lose the humanity of the people we count. They become coins, rather than God’s unique and beautiful jewels.
On Monday, I went to two britot milah – one in person, one virtually, so I got to hear the messages twice. One important message that I picked up on was the Kisei Shel Eliyahu – Elijah’s chair. Elijah is the only prophet whose death is never recorded, in fact, God brings him to God’s realm and that is the last we see of him, so his return to earth is thought to be the beginning of the coming of the messiah. Why do we place a child on the kisei shel eliyahu?
Because each child has the potential of becoming the messiah.
Is there anything more fitting for a Jewish parent to begin their child’s lives? Not only do I expect you to be a doctor or a lawyer, but I expect you to be the messiah!
Each parent gave speeches telling the story of their child’s name, and the story of who they were named after. From that moment on, that child is no longer a number, like our ancestors in the wilderness during that census, they are called before God, Moses, and Aaron, and their name is said out loud.
And as you see this child, placed on this special chair, it gives everyone in the room a sense of hope – this child can change the world, and if this child, who is just 8 days old can change the world, why not me?
And when I saw these children, I thought about our own children, our teens, as they sat in a room with one of the most special people I’ve ever met, Scott Fried. One child asked him, why do you think you are still alive? He gave four reasons, but I’ll just focus on a couple. He said, this is difficult to say, but I felt I needed to live. It’s not that my friends who died didn’t, but it has helped me.
And finally, because I needed to speak to each one of you.
Scott ends each session by looking at the each person in the eyes – making this deep connection. With his eyes, he is telling you what he tells so many others – You Are Enough. You are special, you are unique, you can change the world, because I have changed the world. Scott’s life could have ended years ago, but 26 years after becoming HIV positive, he’s still here – educating, inspiring, and connecting.
Can you imagine if you looked at everyone like Scott looked at you? Can you imagine if you looked at everyone the way you look at the baby boy on the Elijah’s chair? Can you imagine if you looked at yourself in the mirror the way that God looks at you everyday? Can you imagine how different the world would be?
Let’s challenge ourselves to see others and ourselves differently – not as a number, but as a name. Not as a dust and ashes, but as precious jewels reflecting the divine sparks just waiting to light up the world.
Let’s live life not by counting others, but letting every person know that they count.