This past week I had the honor of contributing to the Americans for Peace Now Peace Parasha series. I offered a look at the haftarah for Tisha B’Av, the day of mourning for the destruction of the Temples that was observed this past Sunday.
It was at the end of my time away, which included a spiritual retreat and vacation time with my extended family, that I opened up my email to get caught up, only to learn that our building has been once again targeted by graffiti. Someone had scrawled “Free Palestine!” on one of the large columns to the left of our main entrance.
I was returning in a day or two, so I asked that nothing be done in the meantime—I wanted to see it for myself. Upon my return to Olympia I looked at it, took photos and dutifully went off to the police station to report the vandalism. As it was last time this happened—a year ago when someone wrote “What About Palestine?!” on our readerboard—there was little the police could do to find the person responsible, but they were appreciative of the report so they can track vandalism and see if any patterns emerge. I thought it important that there is a formal record of the synagogue being selectively targeted.
Because that is what it is, the synagogue—a visible Jewish structure—being targeted with a message meant directly for us. This wasn’t a tag of a name, or an artistic rendering . It was a message meant to target, upset, challenge and unnerve Jews. And to deliberately target a minority group with the express purpose of challenging and unnerving them, through violating their private space, is an expression of “malicious harassment” (as our Washington State law terms it).
The irony of this act of graffiti is that, in my own way, I support the message. I believe that we as Jews need to be concerned with the plight of the Palestinians, and need to confront head on the role Israel has played in the perpetuation of an unjust and oppressive system. I want Palestinians to be free. What I don’t support, of course–and what no body should support—is the transmission of that message through harassment, through the violation of Jewish space.
I will grant that the message in its content does not directly target or threaten Jews qua Jews. But the means of conveying the message can inspire fear and vulnerability. Plus the message conflates American Jews and Israelis in unhealthy and oftentimes erroneous ways, makes assumptions about political attitudes that may not be founded in reality, treats Jews as some monolithic “other” and trades on classic anti-Semitic tropes of Jewish dual loyalty.
This act of graffiti is another reminder of our potential vulnerability. As we Jews rightfully join the fight for racial justice, we also remember that in the Charleston shooters manifesto, Jews were second on the list behind African-Americans.
This Sunday is Tisha B’Av, a holiday set aside to commemorate the destruction of the first and second Temples in Ancient Jerusalem. These buildings hold an important place in the religious imagination of the Jewish people because of their importance and centrality in the life of our ancestors, and because of the spiritual power contained within. Their destructions—first by the Babylonians in 586 BCE and then by the Romans in 70 CE—are marked by mourning and lamentation. It has become a day to mark not only these specific events, but the idea of communal destruction in general.
While outside armies toppled the buildings, the rabbis in the Talmud decades later sought to determine reasons for the destructions. In their mind, the external destruction must be in response to an internal weakness. The first destruction, they suggested, was because of sinful nature of the Israelite community in their lax observance of ritual law and sexual practices. The second, they suggested, was based on ethical lapses, primarily the prevalence of sinat chinam among the community.
Sinat chinam is an interesting term, and it is usually translated as “groundless hatred.” That is, hatred that does not have any basis in reality, hatred without cause. Maybe there are those we dislike for good reason—they wrong us or hold incompatible views. Sinat chinam is just hatred for the sake of hatred, hatred because of who one is, rather than what one does or says. The Jewish community at the time was factionalized, write the rabbis, divided by this groundless hatred, which gave an opening for the destruction of the Temple.
I want to suggest another understanding of sinat chinam. Sinat means “hatred.” Chinam has the connotation not only of “groundless” but of “freely given.” Indeed, the word chinam in modern Hebrew is most commonly found in stores and markets as it means “free,” i.e. “without cost.” Something that is freely given is casually doled out, as free samples in stores, or outdoor festivals or outside ballparks. So what is hatred freely given?
I think our graffiti is an example of such. It is a malicious act done casually, without thought, and without any intention of positive outcome. It does not seek to constructively advance a cause, it rather casually seeks to destabilize others in pursuit of that cause. It is an act done without deep thought which seeks to further alienate and “otherize” an already vulnerable minority population. It is hatred casually doled out. And this can be destructive.
On my way to the police station yesterday I happened to be run into a friend and we shared a quick lunch. I told him about the graffiti. He was sympathetic, and he mentioned that the positive in this incident is that it means that the Temple is a visible, engaged member of the community, and underneath the act of graffiti is a desire to connect, even if the means are misguided. While I still feel shaken and unnerved by the idea of being targeted, I do take some strength from this idea.
Because unlike millennia ago, this act of sinat chinam will not result in the destruction of the Temple. We will continue to be a visible presence in the Olympia community. We will continue to defy and challenge what “the Jews” are supposed to think and feel, providing a model for a dynamic Jewish community. We will wrestle with Israel, with Palestine, with politics. We will continue to observe traditions and deepen our spirituality. And we will continue to be a platform for social justice and peace. We will continue to be a place where people are able to connect—with Judaism, with me and with each other.
The graffiti will be painted over. The column will still stand.
It’s summertime, and my senses are alive. Feeling the heat on my skin, seeing the lush growth all around, tasting the fresh fruits and vegetables from farm and garden, hearing birds and other animals and smelling fresh flowers.
Yet while I enjoy the summer and the change in routines and the increased time outdoors, I open up this week’s Torah portion, Pinchas, and read this:
In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall observe a sacred occasion: you shall not work at your occupations. You shall observe it as a day when the horn is sounded. You shall present a burnt offering of pleasing odor to God: one bull of the herd, one ram, and seven yearling lambs, without blemish. The meal offering with them—choice flour with oil mixed in—shall be: three-tenths of a measure for a bull, two-tenths for a ram, and one-tenth for each of the seven lambs. And there shall be one goat for a sin offering, to make expiation in your behalf— in addition to the burnt offering of the new moon with its meal offering and the regular burnt offering with its meal offering, each with its libation as prescribed, offerings by fire of pleasing odor to God.
And with that, my mind is taken forward to the fall to two months from now, when we will celebrate the High Holidays. And while I know I should live in the moment and enjoy summer for all that it offers, I will admit that my mind is turning already to our holiday season. I know it may seem far off, but my planning for the holidays–these deeply spiritual holidays, the most important time of our year–is already well underway.
This passage from Numbers chapter 29 is clearly a reference to Rosh Hashana, the new year festival. The date is correct–the first day of the seventh month–and we can recognize the reference to the shofar. And even though there is no reference to the new year, it is not named as Rosh Hashana, and the ritual is foreign, full of animals, oil and fire, this is one of the biblical references to the new year festival.
So while you are maybe out picking berries, or dipping your toes in the Sound, I will invite you to think forward a few weeks and join me in getting ready for the High Holidays.
The ritual mentioned in this passage is weird and interesting. It is, of course, something that we do not practice or even connect with. But we can not easily dismiss it, there is wisdom within. While we are igniting all of our senses this summer, we are reminded that the ancient new year ritual also ignited all of our senses. We can imagine what it must have been like to hear the sounds of the animals, or feel the grain mixed with oil, or see the flames. There is a direct connection between the physical and the spiritual. So thinking forward to the holidays reminds us of something we need to remember now–that all of what we enjoy is both a physical pleasure and a spiritual pleasure, and we should offer gratitude for all that we experience and can experience.
Additionally, one could imagine all the preparation that must have gone into that ancient ritual. And while it was the priests of the Temple who did the dirty work, everyone contributed by bringing animals and offerings. One could imagine that our ancestors prepared for weeks and months to be ready, indeed, all that was offered in the fall–choice grains and animals–were products of the summer. The preparation involved selecting, counting, identifying, dedicating. So it is not too early for us, as we are enjoying and offering gratitude for the joys of summer, to begin to think forward two months. What might we wish to offer this year at the High Holidays?
So, yes, let’s continue to enjoy summer.I still have lots I want to do. But I also invite you to join me in thinking forward and preparing for the High Holidays. It is that way our holidays will be “pleasing to God.”
This Sunday is the observance of the 17th of Tammuz. More than just a date on the calendar, it is a minor fast day in the Jewish tradition. [N.B.: Sunday is actually the 18th, but because the 17th falls on Shabbat, the fast is postponed one day.]
The day marks the beginning of a three week period of mourning that culminates with Tisha B’Av (the Ninth of Av), a day set aside to commemorate the destruction of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. Observed by mourning, fasting and abstinence, Tisha B’Av is a day to focus on the themes of destruction, collective loss and communal strife.
The 17th of Tammuz introduces these themes. While the Ninth of Av marks the ultimate destruction of the Temple, the 17th of Tammuz marks the breaching of the walls of Jerusalem that ultimately led to that destruction. Once that line of defense was broken, it was only a matter of time until the loss was complete; once the walls fell, the Temple’s fall was inevitable. So while Tisha B’Av is the major day of mourning, the three week period beginning Sunday is itself a period of mourning.
The 17th of Tammuz is called a minor fast day because it is a sunrise to sunset fast, unlike the major fast days of Tisha B’Av and Yom Kippur (The Day of Atonement) which are sundown to sundown fasts. But the designation of “minor” could also describe its place in the consciousness of contemporary Jews. The day itself, much less the fast, is not widely observed.
And I will admit I too more honor the 17th of Tammuz in the breach rather than the observance (especially on those years that it falls on my birthday.) But lately it has taken on new meaning for me. Just as the fast on Yom Kippur gives us the opportunity to focus our spiritual energy inward on our own sins so that we are able to make atonement, so too do the fast days of the three weeks give us the opportunity to focus our spiritual energy outward on our communal sins so that we are able to make atonement.
And with that intention in mind, as we face the current news, this year on the 17th of Tammuz I am fasting for black
churches. This year, in light of the shootings at the Emanuel AME church in Charleston which took nine lives, I am fasting for racially motivated violence in our country. This year, in light of the series of church arsons over the past few weeks, I am fasting to acknowledge the communal sin of racial violence and injustice which continue to this day.
On this 17th of Tammuz, we Jews are mindful that there is no greater communal violation than the violation of sacred space. And as the walls of ancient Jerusalem were once violated, and now the walls of the contemporary black church are being violated.
Fasting is a means to an end, not an end in itself. It is an act that should motivate us to act. This morning I was on a conference call with over 400 faith leaders from many denominations, sponsored by Showing Up for Racial Justice, to talk about white solidarity in response to the violence directed towards black churches. It was an inspiring call to stand up and show up, to share resources and work together.
Fasting for churches this Sunday is not an official call to action, it is my personal kavannah (intention). I intend to do something initially practical, and donate the money I would have spent on food to a fund to help rebuild churches. But more than that, this fast will serve as another reminder and motivation for me that we have much work to do to rebuild that which has been, and continues to be, knocked down.
It is my turn again at the Rabbis Without Borders blog on My Jewish Learning. Here are some reflections on last week’s Supreme Court decision on marriage.
Today the Supreme Court ruled in a 6-3 decision that the Affordable Care Act, otherwise known as “Obamacare,” will not be gutted of one of its key provisions: that federal subsidies to pay for health insurance would be available to qualified applicants who sign up through a health care exchange. The question hinged on whether or not those who purchased health insurance through the federal exchange rather than a state exchange would continue to be eligible.
I admit I was nervous leading up to this ruling. Back when I was on my high school debate team, a topic one year was health care, and we had to argue—both pro and con—universal health care. It was then that I really started to learn more about the health care system in our country, an issue that has stuck with me ever since. And since I have had to utilize health care and health insurance several times for fairly serious issues, it has made me even more aware of the need for access and insurance.
And while it may not be perfect, as a means for a large number of people to gain access to health care and health insurance I was a supporter of the ACA. (And I am currently a customer.) I was nervous about the fact that we may backtrack, and that people would lose their newly won benefits.
Here in Washington, of course, those who receive subsidies would have been safe. Our state is one of the minority (!) of states that set up its own exchange, and the ruling would not have impacted citizens of Washington in the same way it would have those in other states.
That discrepancy in the states is what the argument hinged on, and why, as a rabbi, I am very pleased with the outcome. Not because of the merits of the law—I only have a layperson’s opinions about that—but because of the merit of the decision. The opinion of the court, written by Chief Justice Roberts, is a victory for Obamacare, yes, but it is also a victory for the Jewish textual interpretive tradition.
The case hinged on 4 words: that subsidies apply to those who purchase health insurance through an exchange “established by the State.” The question before the court is, does this apply to only those who bought their health insurance through a state exchange, or does it apply to both those who bought their health insurance through a state exchange and those who bought their health insurance through the federal exchange.
When the law was written and passed, the assumption would be that all 50 states would establish health care exchanges to serve as the statewide marketplace for health insurance. Many states—ostensibly for political reasons—refused to set up exchanges. It then fell to the federal government to establish an exchange to serve those who live in states without exchanges.
But the language of “the state” remained, and the plaintiffs of the suit argued that we need to take the law at its plain meaning: since it mentions “the state” it must refer to ONLY an exchange set up by a state, and not the federal government. The government argued that we need to take the law at its intended meaning: that “the state” is not a technical term to refer only to one of the 50 states, but it refers to the government in general.
Now all of this could have been avoided with better editing and tracking as the bill went through its various permutations. But it was passed as it was written, and that is over which the Justices were arguing.
And so this is a victory for the Jewish textual interpretive tradition because the Justices chose an interpretive reading,
looking at intent and spirit, rather than a strict literal reading, looking at paper and letter. For this is I believe how we are meant to approach our sacred texts—not strictly to the letter, but with an eye towards meaning-making and spirit.
Law—whether civil in this case or spiritual in Judaism—is meant to uplift the individual and community to a higher level. This sometimes requires a look at context and intent. This is especially true as we seek to interpret our Jewish sacred texts. Some of the laws and practices of the Torah are foreign to us in their literalness or practice (in this week’s portion Hukkat, for example, ritual impurity from a dead body). But the spirit of the laws and the intentions behind them (coping with and confronting death) are very present and important. The letter pushes us away but the spirit draws us close. We seek to understand the spirit of the text in order to make it meaningful.
Additionally, interpreting Scripture through the narrow lens of literalness oftentimes leads to destructive ends. We see this in the rise of fundamentalism around the world in which a strict reading of text leads to fear and hatred of the other, the desire to control and an inability to be open and pluralistic. In the oft-quoted words of Chief Justice Roberts from today’s opinion: “A fair reading of legislation demands a fair understanding of the legislative plan. Congress passed the Affordable Care Act to improve health insurance markets, not to destroy them. If at all possible, we must interpret the Act in a way that is consistent with the former, and avoids the latter.” While admittedly far from religious fundamentalism, Roberts hints that a strict reading of text would not only be against the intent of the law, but have harmful ends.
In the end, Roberts and the Majority chose people over text. The Minority, in arguing for a strict reading, chose text over people. And that is a lesson for us as well. Scripture is important. Text is important. For Judaism, Torah and text is the root of our tradition. But we must approach it as a living text, meant to help not to harm, meant to expand not to limit. Torah’s words are meant to inhabit our souls, not simply be parsed on the scroll.
Yesterday was quite a day.
Yesterday was an amazing spiritual confluence: in the Jewish calendar it was Rosh Hodesh Tammuz, the first day of the month of Tammuz. For Muslims, the holy month of Ramadan began. And Pope Francis issued a major encyclical on the environment, which hopefully promises to change the way we address climate change.
And we woke up to news that the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC—an African American church deeply rooted in history—was the site of a horrible racist attack that resulted in the shooting death of nine people, including the pastor (who was also a state senator).
At time in which we are deeply confronting the history of institutionalized racism and privilege—from police shootings (including the one in Olympia) to the identity adoption of Rachel Dozelal—we are confronted with this particular act of terror, this particular act of violence based in hatred.
I shared this on Facebook yesterday morning:
Today: Rosh Hodesh (new moon) of Tammuz, the beginning of Ramadan, the Pope released an encyclical on the environment, and news of a tragic shooting at a black church in Charleston. May we have the strength to overcome our fears and hatreds, and clarity of vision to put aside violence and embrace hope and peace.
This shooting struck a particularly deep chord because of the time and place: it took place during a bible study at church. The shooter apparently had joined the group an hour before he began shooting—he was thus welcomed and included in a sacred space at a sacred time. The church—meant to be a place of safety and sanctuary (in the many meanings of the term)—was violated.
[As a Jew I felt a particular sickness at this act, because of the time and place. Jews are a historically persecuted minority, and we in our sacred spaces have wrestled with trying to walk the fine line between openness and safety. More than one person has expressed to me a bit of caution, of the need to look over ones shoulder, when gathering for services or at the Temple. Indeed, just last week someone walked into the sanctuary during Erev Shabbat and loudly disrupted services, yelling, “I need to talk to the pastor!” In this case it wasn’t a violent episode, I was able to talk to her to ascertain her needs, but it was a reminder nonetheless of our vulnerability at times.]
Because of this violation of sacred space, it felt like a sacred response was needed. A few colleagues and I, with the help of Interfaith Works, hastily arranged a vigil in Sylvester Park yesterday at 5:00 p.m. It was a time for being together in grief and to renew our commitment to peace and justice. We prayed, we sang, we read the names of the dead and we offered words of Scripture. We came together as victims and allies to mark this one tragedy and locate ourselves within the larger narrative of violence and racism in our country.
It was a powerful gathering. My Episcopalian colleague the Rev. George McDonnell shared this wonderful litany she wrote. And to honor the fact that the shooting victims were engaged in sacred text study at the time of their deaths, I offered a short passage of Scripture.
With the new month of Tammuz which we entered into yesterday comes a period of mourning in the Jewish tradition. The 17th of the month is a minor fast day which begins a three-week period which leads to a major fast day, Tisha B’Av. It is on that day that we mourn the destruction of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. Through noting this historic event, we turn our attention to the themes of communal disruption, baseless hatred and disunity in the community—all reasons given by our Sages for the Temple’s fall. In other words, the physical destruction of a communal institution is a symbol for the inner failure of community.
But, our Sages also sought to remind us that hope can rise from the ashes. As a Scriptural reading for Tisha B’Av, they assigned the prophet Jeremiah concluding with these verses, which are also appropriate for this time:
Thus says God: Let not the wise glory in their wisdom, neither let the mighty glory in their might, Let not the rich glory in their riches; But let them glory in this, that they understand, and know Me, That I am the God who acts with lovingkindess, justice, and righteousness in the world; for in these things I delight, says God. (Jeremiah 9:22-3)
The work continues. Let us all come to a place in which we can bring about lovingkindness, justice and righteousness in our world, so that all peoples can delight.
This is the season of graduation.
Last week I was honored to attend the graduation ceremony of my rabbinical school, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, as a board member of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association. Ozi had his graduation exercises from middle school earlier today before all the eighth graders went off to Wild Waves. And this coming week I will have my own graduation ceremony.
This past year I was fortunate to study at the University of Washington School of Professional and Continuing Education, where I participated in the Certificate in Nonprofit Management program. From September through June I went up to Seattle every Wednesday to study with close to 30 other students all working to learn more about the nonprofit sector. My last class was last week, and this coming Wednesday is the graduation ceremony for all the certificate programs. And while it is optional, I do plan to go because, well, I like ritual.
The learning was wide ranging, and I did learn a tremendous amount. I learned about budgets and legal issues. I learned about leadership roles and supervision. I learned about overused words and fundraising appeals.
On the last day of class, our instructors asked us to take a moment and write one thought, one idea, one takeaway from the class. When confronted with this type of exercise I either come up with something right away or a draw a blank. This time, luckily, it was the former, and I went up to the white board and wrote:
In last week’s Torah portion, Behaalotcha, there was a poignant moment. The Israelites, after a long sojourn at the foot of Mount Sinai, are preparing to begin their journey to the Promised Land. A lot has changed: the group of former slaves liberated from Egypt have become a full-fledged community. They received the Torah and laws, organized themselves into tribes and hierarchies, build the Tabernacle, established norms and rituals and a cohesive communal identity. This transformed group is now ready to move forward on their journey.
As they are about to do so, Jethro makes an appearance. Remember Jethro? He is Moses’s father-in-law who welcomed in Moses when he fled Egypt the first time, before he returned to liberate the Israelites. But what was even more significant is when Jethro then showed up after the Israelites crossed the Red Sea to provide some practical advice on how Moses should run the community:
Next day, Moses sat as magistrate among the people, while the people stood about Moses from morning until evening. But when Moses’ father-in-law saw how much he had to do for the people, he said, “What is this thing that you are doing to the people? Why do you act alone, while all the people stand about you from morning until evening?” Moses replied to his father-in-law, “It is because the people come to me to inquire of God. When they have a dispute, it comes before me, and I decide between one person and another, and I make known the laws and teachings of God.” But Moses’ father-in-law said to him, “The thing you are doing is not right; you will surely wear yourself out, and these people as well. For the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone. Now listen to me. I will give you counsel, and God be with you! You represent the people before God: you bring the disputes before God, and enjoin upon them the laws and the teachings, and make known to them the way they are to go and the practices they are to follow. You shall also seek out from among all the people capable people who fear God, who are trustworthy and spurn ill-gotten gain. Set these over them as chiefs of thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens, and let them judge the people at all times. Have them bring every major dispute to you, but let them decide every minor dispute themselves. Make it easier for yourself by letting them share the burden with you. If you do this — and God so commands you — you will be able to bear up; and all these people too will go home unwearied.” (Exodus 18:13-23)
And now, as the Israelites are about to depart, Moses turns to Jethro and says, “We are setting out for the place of which God has said, ‘I will give it to you.’ Come with us and we will be generous with you; for God has promised to be generous to Israel.” (Numbers 10:25) Jethro, however, declines and says, “I will not go but will return to my native land.”
This is a significant exchange, considering the role Jethro played in the development of the Israelites. Moses remembers the important role Jethro and his advice played in the life of the Israelites. Moses through his leadership out of Egypt and as the receiver of the law on Sinai represents the mission of the Israelites. What Jethro represents therefore is the need to impose practical advice and structure in order for the Israelites to fulfill their mission.
After the Israelites left Egypt, the idea of freedom, the idea of a new home, the idea of Torah, is not enough. In order to make the transition, the Israelites needed a new norm to help hold them together and make those ideas a reality.
In other words, the mission will not take care of itself.
Through taking this class at UW, I feel I actually deepened my work as a rabbi. For how can I implement the mission and vision of building sacred community, of creating opportunities for personal transformation, of having a base from which to do the work of tikkun olam and social justice, without the practical guidance and structure of the synagogue to support me? Our synagogue mission, my rabbinic mission, will not take care of itself. We need a strong institution and structure to support it. This takes personal effort as well as practical knowledge.
This is why I am grateful the Temple Beth Hatfiloh Board supported me in pursuing this education. In order to help facilitate our development as an organization—for synagogues are a form of nonprofit organization—we agreed that it would be helpful if I increase my knowledge and broaden my skill set. This way I can help the Board in fulfilling our congregation’s mission.
And while education programs come to a close, and we have graduation ceremonies, we must remember that learning and guidance is on-going.
Moses recognizes this too. After Jethro announces his departure, Moses pleads with him to stay—the need for practical guidance in fulfilling one’s mission is not finite. The Israelites will need both Moses and Jethro. So too with us. While we need to be clear on our missions, we also need to be clear on the means to attain that mission. We too will always need both Moses and Jethro.
“How big is your congregation?” This is the number one question I am asked as a congregational rabbi in settings of other rabbis or Jews in general. Rabbi valedictories celebrating a successful rabbinate (upon retirement, for example) will always use synagogue growth as a number one sign of success. And any congregational website will feature […]…»
Last Saturday night we ushered in the festival of Shavuot, which celebrates the story from the Book of Exodus of the revelation at Sinai—the story of how, after freeing the Israelite slaves from Egyptian bondage, God gives the Torah to Moses on Mount Sinai. This act is the foundation story of the covenant, the sacred bond which binds each person to the divine and each person to each other.
While this is the reason for the holiday, its name betrays a different origin. Shavuot in Hebrew means “weeks,” and it is because the holiday falls seven weeks after Passover. This is based on the holiday’s agricultural roots; originally Shavuot marked the end of the spring harvest season that began at Passover time. The Torah says to literally count the days between the two festivals. (Indeed, unlike the other holidays, Shavuot does not have a set date in the Torah—just that it falls 50 days after Passover begins.)
While the agricultural roots are not primary anymore, and while we can fix the calendar in advance, we still count the days. This period between the two holidays is called the Omer—the Omer is a sheaf of grain—and the practice is to recite a blessing each evening and then count the day with a simple formula, “Today is the Xth day of the Omer, marking X weeks and X days of the Omer.” We last counted the Omer this year on Friday night—the 49th day—and with the onset of Shavuot we completed our counting ritual.
This is not the only time in our tradition that we count. Numbers have great meaning in Jewish tradition, and the fact that “counting as ritual” is a part of our practice may not be a surprise. In addition to the “Counting of the Omer” we can also think of the four cups of wine that mark the Passover Seder or the enumeration of the 613 Commandments. When we light the menorah on Hanukkah, we are also counting—each new candle for each day indicates what day we are celebrating until we get to the last night, the eighth night, and our menorah is fully lit. And even each week we count the days until the sacred day of Shabbat, for in Hebrew, the days of the week are not Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, etc. but Yom Rishon, Yom Sheni, Yom Shlishi, etc. (“First Day, Second Day, Third Day, etc.”). Shabbat is the only day that has a “name.”
And while we have many counting rituals, according to Jewish law and practice there is one thing we are forbidden to count. People.
We are not allowed to count people. Right before Shavuot last week we celebrated Shabbat, and the weekly Torah portion for that Shabbat was Bamidbar, the first portion of the Book of Numbers. While in Hebrew Bamidbar means “In the Wilderness,” taken from the first verse of the book (although it is a hint of the theme of the book, the wanderings of the Israelites), the English name is a reference to the first action in the book: a census. Prior to their wanderings, God tells Moses to take a census of the Israelites in order to be prepared for the journey and to “line up” correctly.
But as we learn from another place in the Torah, an earlier census described in Exodus 30, the census is not done directly. The census was conducted by collecting a unit of money, a half-shekel, from each person. Thus the half-shekels, and not the people directly, were counted, and funds turned over for the Tabernacle and the public welfare.
This act comes to teach a lesson–that we should not count people directly, but rather indirectly. In practice today, this comes up most often when the need arises to determine whether or not there is a minyan present. A minyan is a quorum of 10 adult Jews required for certain prayers, such as the Mourner’s Kaddish, during the worship service. If the room is packed, then there is no need to count. But if there is a small number, it is necessary to count in order to determine that there is ten.
So how do we count if we are not allowed to count? There are several customs. One is to count body parts or articles of clothing, that is, one does not count people, but noses, or shirts. Another is to say, “not-one, not-two…” (I learned this as a kid.) A third practice is to use a phrase or a biblical verse that has ten words in it, reciting each word as you note the people in attendance. (This is the one I use, using Hamotzi, the blessing over bread. Psalm 23:10 is a popular choice as well.)
Perhaps silly in practice, but not in spirit. The reason why we do it like this is hinted in the Exodus passage mentioned above: “When you take a census of the Israelite people according to their enrollment, each shall pay God a ransom for himself on being enrolled, that no plague may come upon them through their being enrolled. This is what everyone who is entered in the records shall pay: a half-shekel by sanctuary weight…” (Exodus 30:12-13) With the juxtaposition of the census, the half-shekel and the plague, the text is understood to mean that it is the act of conducting the census with the half-shekel that avoids the plague. A plague will come if you count people directly.
Or, in other words, bad things will happen when you reduce a person to a number.
Here then is an important lesson about our common humanity. Each and every one of us is a fully whole human being with hopes, dreams, ideas, fears, joys and pains. We are unique individuals connected to yet separate from those who we are in contact with. To assign a person a number, even if for a good reason, is to take away a part of that humanity.
One of our fundamental Jewish teachings is about the sanctity of human life, both of our own and those who are around us. The Torah that we celebrated last week as our foundational text teaches that we are all created in the image of God, and that we are commanded to “love your neighbor as yourself.” This is at the heart of all of the ethical imperatives expected of us, and the simple act of not counting is a good way to remind ourselves of this principle.
As our community is still reeling from and coming to terms with the police shooting of two African American men last week, as the #blacklivesmatter movement comes to our streets, we would do well to remember this. Whatever the circumstances of this particular shooting, we are reminded that because of history, because of bias, we still have much work to do to realize this ideal of a common humanity and equality in our country.
And it will take our humanity to realize this. To understand that none of us is perfect and that we make mistakes, and at the same time we have the capacity to grow and change. That no one is wholly good or wholly evil. The circumstances of this incident will be investigated, which will probably be unsatisfying to some. But the real test is what comes next—can we take what happened last week and become better people and a better community because of it?
To do that, we must remember that we matter, but we don’t count.