D’var Torah: The Torah’s Mandate to Count Everyone
This week we begin reading from the book of Bemidbar and celebrate the holiday of Shavuot. The setting is the wilderness. Moshe is instructed to take a census of adult Jewish males over the age of twenty, in order to form an army.
While on the surface this census may seem to imply that a very limited group of people matters, in context, the fact that a recently emancipated group of slaves is now counting its people to form a “free” army is astounding.
Expanding the ranks of who “counts” has been a theme of Judaism from the outset. The Torah talks constantly of noting the underprivileged, the poor, the widow and the orphan. We are reminded repeatedly that we were once slaves in Egypt and must be sensitive to others.
It’s not just who we count that matters, but also how we count them. Here, the Torah instructs Moshe and Aaron to literally “lift up the heads” of the Israelites as they pass by. To me, this means that Moshe and Aaron must look into the faces and eyes of each person and truly notice them. Looking into the eyes of another should bring home that we are all created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God. When we do this, it becomes extraordinarily difficult to ignore them and their needs.
Judaism demands that we fight for others to be counted. Commentators on the parsha note that the Torah was given in the wilderness, and add that the Torah was also given in fire and water. Each of these venues is instructive:
Fire represents that we should burn with passion for Torah and advocate with emotion.
Water represents that we should act with cool logic and thought to gain our ends.
Wilderness represents that we should be persistent in our efforts towards our goals, just as survival in the wilderness takes persistence.
Each method has its time and place, but the common theme is that we must advocate to ensure that everyone counts. In doing so, we each earn our own right to be counted. This is one of the major lessons we hope to impart at camp this summer.
During the holiday of Shavuot, which commemorates the gift of Torah and the onset of our peoplehood, may we take time to remember that everybody counts and we must also make sure that everyone is accounted for.