Bamidbar – The Power of the Individual

Car rides with kids can be bonding moments.  Ethan and I have ongoing fascination about road signs we pass which record population – How many […]

Car rides with kids can be bonding moments.  Ethan and I have ongoing fascination about road signs we pass which record population – How many people live in San Carlos? In Palo Alto?  In Redwood City?  We couldn’t quite remember the Redwood City population – was it 75,402? Or is it 76,402? It is in that vicinity – I actually looked up the current number – 85,288 live in Redwood City as of July 1, 2015.

Numbers matter.  The census decides how many representatives each state has.  It helps decide future questions regarding school systems, senior services, healthcare funding.  In ancient Israel numbers matter in similar ways.  The census in today’s portion is about how to prepare for war and later the census will matter in terms of land distribution.  How you count and who you count may seem like a mundane detail, but the implications are profound.

Interestingly enough – the commentary on this morning’s portion looks at census from other angles. What can we learn from counting?  The classic 11th century commentator Rashi sees counting as a way to communicate the specialness of the people – in fact an act of Divine Love.  Listen to his words:   “Because they are dear to God, God counts them often. God counted them when there were about to leave Egypt.  God counted them after the Golden Calf to establish how many were left. And now that the Tabernacle is about to cause the Divine Presence to dwell among them, God counts them again.”  Counting is an act of love. The message is important – count because the community matters and is treasured.

Other commentators build on this lesson but from a different angle.  They look at the Hebrew word translated as “count”. (p. 770, Numbers 1:2). Seu et rosh – it is translated as “take a census” but if you look at the commentary below the line you see the literally it means “lift the head.”  This is a strange expression.  Biblical Hebrew has lots of verbs that mean to count” limnot, lifkod, lispor – why not use those words instead of some roundabout expression “life the heads” of the people.”

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes: “The short answer is this. In any census….there is a tendency to focus on the total: the crowd, the multitude, the mass.  Here is a nation of 60 million people, a company with 100,000 employees or a sports crowd of 60,000.  Any total tends to value the group or nation a whole.”  – usually the larger the number the better.  Counting devalues the individual – an individual is a mere grain of sand on a huge beach.  The lesson of seu et rosh is that every single individual matters.  Each and every person is of value and critical worth.  Here is what the 12th century commentator Nachmanides says: “When you count the total number of your people, be very sure that you never forget the individual: his or her importance, dignity and needs.”  In other words, don’t let large numbers cause you to overlook individuals. The best teachers never measure a classroom by its collective test results – they look at each student as precious and try to bring out the special talents, qualities, insights and intelligences of each student.  The best rabbis never see a congregation as a quantity of congregants in seats – but as individuals with sacred stories, personal struggles, extraordinary insights and skills and holiness.  The challenge of any organization or community is to treat each person as if they were the entire universe.

When people count your heart embraces their story.  The result is real relationship and connection. And at the same time, this lifting up of each individual leaves a terrible sense of grief when life is lost, especially when it is tragically taken.  This has been be week when our grief is magnified. Terrorism in Manchester, England and Egypt have left us reeling as we feel the loss of precious lives. The message of seu et rosh – lift up each individual – is that people who died are not numbers – they are individuals with faces, names, personalities and families.  They deserve to be remembered as precious individuals.  In the Talmud we learn that when an individual life is lost, an entire universe is lost.  We feel. We grieve.  We listen to and share their stories – reaching out to those who have lost loved ones. It brings healing because people know that their loved ones matter.

I gain some comfort from the myriad stories of people who at moments of tragedy, lift up the dignity of fellow human.  Our congregant Jackie Dines is from Manchester and Jackie sent me a posting of her Rabbi, Amir Elituv on the evening of the bombing in Manchester.  He writes that as he was called to the hospital and he met in the multi-faith chaplains office. He saw Siddiq the Imam, Peter the line manager and Laurence, a Christian Priest.  Soon the Rabbi, the Priest and the Imam were running through the corridors to support the families who were gathering at the hospital – some who would receive the news that their loved one had died.

He writes: “There wasn’t much you could say to the people who just found out that their brother and son was killed just give them a hand, tissues, a drink of tea or water and hear them speak.  The atmosphere in the room was tense but also full of shock and numbness, there weren’t any angry shouts, just silent sobs and stunned expressions.” Some families had the relief of discovering their children were safe and alive, or that they would be okay. He described heroic acts of doctors who saved injured victims and all the people who rallied together to give support. He wrote about the quiet determination and bravery that many who displayed.

He writes about one poignant and defining moment: “As chaplains we moved from site to site, from the children to the adults.  On one of our journeys I was walking with Siddiq, the imam, he is a great guy with whom I have a great working relationship.  We were walking towards the children’s department and had a couple walk past us.  The eyes of the father looking towards the imam said a thousand words, he never said anything but there was a look of anger, of recriminations, of it’s your fault.  We continued walking towards out patients and sat down together to speak.  Now isn’t the time for recriminations, for us now was the time to treat the wounded and give solace to the mourners.”

Rabbi Elituv realized that significance of the moment: He writes: “As I reflect on the morning after, I pray that the image that we project in the hospital of coexistence is played outside in the wider public. After the shock wears off and the anger rises we have to be careful, we have to do what we can to show that religion is a model of peace and understanding. We have to show that extremism has no place in our society and has to be driven out.  We have to educate the message of peace and not hatred, and let the love of God shine in our lives to help those around us.  The professionalism of the hospital and our police is unquestionably immense, and every person dealing with the victims are heroes.  I pray that we shouldn’t have to deal with such tragedies and that those kids and other kids can play peacefully and not need to be brave over such events.”

Those who step forward to help others, who ignore hatred directed at them as they care live the value of seu et rosh – lift up their heads. Amidst sadness and embracing and sharing stories, I get cope with moments like this by focusing on individuals who care – for their kindness unites and teaches.  There was a children’s television show when I was growing up called Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood.  Fred Rodgers was a wise and insightful educator and he often told this story about when he as a boy and would see scary things on the news: “My mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers.  You will always find people who are helping.’  To this day especially in times of disaster, I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in the world.”

Rabbi Elituv reminds us of the helpers – the doctors, the nurses, the police and firemen, volunteers, chaplains, neighbors, the two homeless men who jumped in to help the wounded.  It is the helpers who lift up each individual.

Seu et rosh – lift up each person is an important way to live life – in good times and in difficult times, in big crowds and small crowds.  We can create a community where every person is seen as unique and special.  We can live by an ethic whereby we reach out during tragic times and find ways to remember, care and help for each individual.  It starts by affirming that every single person is unique and special.  Shabbat Shalom