Bamidbar – Making Sure We All Count

Once you know you count, then you have responsibility.

A new book was released this week called Seeing Silicon Valley, by photographer Mary Beth Meehan and Stanford professor Fred Turner.  My brother-in-law forwarded to me a Washington Post article about it, and I knew I was going to have to rush out and get it ahead of Gabby’s bat-mitzvah.  Because, Gabby, you inspired me with the way you described what it means to be counted.  And this book seemed to be all about who is and who is not counted.

It opens with a photograph of a man named Cristobal.  Cristobal served in the US military for seven years, including three years in the war in Iraq.  Now he works full time as a security guard at Facebook, earning $21 an hour.  Meehan visited Cristobal at his home to do the photoshoot – and was shocked to discover that his “home” was just a shed.  In the Post article, she is quoted saying: “We  shared so much anger in the making of that picture. I mean, for God’s sakes. You have a full-time job, you served in the U.S. military. Should a home be so far outside your reach?”

The census described in this week’s Torah portion did not count everyone.  They counted the soldiers, or the potential soldiers – people like Cristobal.  And as Gabby so eloquently said, it’s not fair that the women and children were not counted.  Slowly, over time, we’ve been closing the gap between the Torah’s founding ideal that every human is created in the image of God, between the founding fathers ideal that “all men are created equal”, and our unfair reality.

But at least in the Torah, the soldiers counted.  They weren’t used for their service and then discarded, as is happening left and right all around us today. Over 37,000 US war veterans have no place to live, right now.  It doesn’t have to be that way.  It shouldn’t be that way.  Communities who have committed themselves to helping veterans, have succeeded.  82 communities, plus the entire state of Connecticut, Delaware and Virginia, have ended Veteran homelessness.  But in our California, a state abundant with wealth and beauty, only one community has done so.  (That’s Riverside, no where near Silicon Valley.)

Here is the verse introducing the censust:

שְׂא֗וּ אֶת־רֹאשׁ֙ כָּל־עֲדַ֣ת בְּנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל לְמִשְׁפְּחֹתָ֖ם לְבֵ֣ית אֲבֹתָ֑ם בְּמִסְפַּ֣ר שֵׁמ֔וֹת כָּל־זָכָ֖ר לְגֻלְגְּלֹתָֽם׃

Take a census of the whole Israelite community by their clans and by their ancestral houses, numbering the names of every male, head by head.

The language here is idiomatic, and our translator went with the intended meaning rather than a literal translation of the idiom.  שאו את ראש literally means lift up the head.  So a more literal translation would be:

Lift up the head of the whole Israelite community by their clans and by their ancestral houses, numbering the names of every male, head by head.

A well-known 17th century commentator, Rabbi Yeshayahu HaLevi Horovitz, wrote on this verse:

Here we see the importance of Israel.  Everyone is a head, an important personage. After nobility comes obligation. Every person of Israel must feel a sense of extra responsibility about their actions, for we each have influence, whether for good or for bad.

Notice that this short comment includes at least two profound points.  The first is the point Gabby made.  Every Israelite – and we can expand that to every human being — should count. 

Mary Beth Meehan tries to help us do that with her book.  She photographed and interviewed people who don’t seem to count in our world.  There’s a lot of mention in the book of those RVs that line El Camino Real in various places.  How often have you driven past them and wondered about the people who live inside.  What’s it like to live in the middle of a modern city without running water or electricity?  How do they shower? How do they use the toilet?  Where do they get their mail?  To use Gabby’s words: “How do they feel not to be counted” with even an address?

I’ve never met anyone who lives in those RVs.  I always just drive right past.  Though I’ve often thought about it, and wondered how to breach that barrier. Now, through this book, at least I know the names and faces of a few of them.  Like Victor, a man in his ‘80s, whose neighbors knock on his door when they are suffering from a twisted ankle or a stiff neck.  He has a little jar of ointment that he uses to massage their sore spots. 

Let’s go back to Horovitz’s teaching, and notice the second point he makes. Once you know you count, once you know you are a person of real substance, then you have responsibility. 

For me, one of the most unsettling pages of Meehan’s book is about a man named Warren.  His photograph is a scene that is much more familiar to me than Cirobal’s shed or Victor’s RV.  It’s Warren’s family of four sitting, around their pool in their lovely backyard, each on their own device. The picture itself off-putting,  but only because it appears immediately after the photograph of Victor’s RV.  Warren’s story that accompanied the picture was even more so.  It was three paragraphs about his successful career, and three more paragraphs criticizing the immoral behavior of a few folks who are even more rich and powerful than he is.  

And then a few pages later is a photograph of Mary, who moved here a year ago from Uganda, and is thinking about going home.  Listen to what Mary had to say:

There are people here who are poorer than we are in Africa, because you cannot find a homeless person in my village.  They have their small huts, they have their land…They live with nature. They don’t become homeless. And because our community cares for each other, because we live according to clans, if you have a problem someone is going to come and at least try and solve your problem….If I am sick, I don’t have to worry, because I just tell people I’m sick and someone will come and take care of me…We care for our own until they die in our hands…In Africa, you are never alone. THIS place is lonely…It is lonely. Lonely.

But Meehan’s book also includes photographs of people who are trying to change that.  Richard, a factory worker at Tesla who tried to help his co-workers unionize. Jon, a successful software engineer who is now working with an organization called Street Code Academy offering free coding classes to kids who could otherwise not afford such classes. And others.

And we don’t need to look within the book to see these examples.  It’s all around us here.  That’s what synagogue is all about.  Being there for each other – like Mary said – when we are sick, when we are dying, but also when we are rejoicing, like today, and all the times in between.  And synagogue is also about reaching beyond our “clan”- to use Mary’s word.  When we feel we really count, as Horovitz taught, we have extra responsibility.  CBJs social action team works so hard to allow us to do things like make sandwiches and meals for Maple Street shelters.  Join them- they need more help.  Join our partner IsraAID, who needs both money for projects abroad, and volunteers for distributing food right here in Silicon Valley.  Join our Social Justice team, that is engaged in the slow, patient work of trying to pass legislative changes to protect the people who are so often not counted.

Using our voices and our actions to help others – that is what it means to truly count.  Shabbat Shalom!