Korach:the Brexit challenge of its day

Sometimes the concatenation of torah portion and world events is simply eerie.  In the UK we are dealing with the fallout of a leadership bid that spectacularly exploded outside of the narrow boundaries of party politic where it should have remained, and in bible we are dealing with the fallout of a leadership bid where the ambition of the leaders of the revolt harnessed popular opinion from those who felt marginalised and deserted by the ruling elite leading to a spectacular implosion of those ambitious challengers.

Korach, a Levite and cousin of Moses and Aaron (his father Izhar and their father Amram were brothers) felt that Moses and Aaron had taken too much power, and that others in the community were equally competent to lead and were dissatisfied at being treated as being less than the ruling group. Along with Datan and Abiram and On ben Pelet and two hundred and fifty men of standing in the community he came to challenge the right of the leadership to continue.

רַב־לָכֶם֒ כִּ֤י כָל־הָֽעֵדָה֙ כֻּלָּ֣ם קְדֹשִׁ֔ים וּבְתוֹכָ֖ם יְהוָֹ֑ה וּמַדּ֥וּעַ תִּֽתְנַשְּׂא֖וּ עַל־קְהַ֥ל יְהוָֹֽה:

You take too much upon you, seeing all the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the Eternal is among them; why then do you raise up yourselves above the assembly of the Eternal?’ (16:3)

Moses’ response was to fall on his face. He did not argue back, nor justify his leadership at this time, but seems to have been paralysed for a moment, and then he puts the onus for supporting his status on to God. A charitable reading would be that Moses was prostrated in prayer, to ask for divine guidance, but this is not recorded in the text, so what happens next seems to have come more from Moses’ mind than from God.

He spoke to Korach and all his company, saying: ‘In the morning the Eternal will show who are God’s, and who is holy, and will cause them to come near to God; (16:5) and then told Korach and his followers to take their firepans the next day and put fire and incense in them, and God would show who would be chosen, who was holy. He challenges the Levites in Korach’s group – they already have a role and status in supporting the worship ritual, are they trying to take on the role of the Cohen, the priest, as well as that of Levite, the enablers of the priests?

Then follows a strange hole in the narrative – Moses says:

לָכֵ֗ן אַתָּה֙ וְכָל־עֲדָ֣תְךָ֔ הַנֹּֽעָדִ֖ים עַל־יְהוָֹ֑ה וְאַֽהֲרֹ֣ן מַה־ה֔וּא כִּ֥י תַלִּ֖ונוּ [תַלִּ֖ינוּ] עָלָֽיו

Therefore you and all your company that are gathered together against the Eternal–; and as to Aaron, what is he that you murmur against him?’

What is the ‘therefore’ referring to? What causes the leap from accusing the rebels of challenging for the priesthood to accusing them as rebelling against God? Why does he appear to break off from this startling reframing of the rebellion and ask about Aaron specifically?  The rebellion is against both Moses and Aaron, but Moses seems to be taking himself out of the equation, viewing the – quite legitimate – complaints as being about the priesthood, and not about his own style of leadership.

Having categorised the rebellion as being about something rather different than what it really was about, he turns to the sons of Reuben, the descendants of the first born of Jacob, the tribe who might really have had a claim to leadership on the grounds of primogeniture and the inheritance hierarchy of the biblical world.

But Datan and Abiram are not cowed and they are not willing to come to him on his call, interestingly saying   לֹ֥א נַֽעֲלֶֽה we will not come up. Not that they will not come to him, but that they will not ascend/rise up. There are two very different understandings of this odd verb – one, that even while professing that they have an equal right to leadership their language betrays them – they see Moses as having a rightful higher status than them; or that while challenging Moses’ right to hold leadership, they refuse themselves to step up to the role, preferring to complain and challenge from the sidelines but without any intention of taking responsibility for the consequences of what they are doing.

Yet they are certainly prepared to complain and to paint a picture of failure and fault.

“Is it a small thing that you have brought us up out of a land flowing with milk and honey, to kill us in the wilderness, but you must also make yourself also a prince over us?  Moreover you have not brought us into a land flowing with milk and honey, nor given us inheritance of fields and vineyards; will you put out the eyes of these men? We will not come up.'(16:13-14)

Fabricated nostalgia paints a false picture of the past which is the set against the present situation. One might paraphrase it as “We came from milk and honey and we are not now given milk and honey, nor the other benefits you told us we would acquire on leaving Egypt and going to the Promised Land. And you are creating a climate of fear here where people who dissent fear for their health and wellbeing, so we will not do as you ask”  The Reubenite challengers are constructing an alternate reality in public view in order to bolster their position without in any way arguing their case or indeed using factually correct information. Egypt was most certainly NOT a land of milk and honey for the Israelites, the people are not yet arrived at the destination they are travelling towards and therefore the inheritance is not yet possible, and nowhere has the putting out of eyes of the men been mooted. But now this view is in the public domain, put forward by men of standing in the community, and there will be those who will believe it to be true, whose anxiety and disaffection can be harnessed, and the pressure is on Moses and Aaron to disprove it.

Datan and Abiram are gifted demagogues, agitating the people with manipulative appeals to popular prejudice and unfulfilled wishes. This is a dangerous moment for the people of Israel, with discontented murmurings and denigrations of the leaders’ activities and plans. They have used the language of future prosperity against current reality and against a rose tinted past that had never existed. Should they take over the leadership, what would have happened? God had not chosen them, did not seem to speak to them nor, from what the text tells us, had any relationship with them. The tribe of Reuben, who should have ordinarily have had access to leadership had lost it through the selfish and transgressive act of Reuben himself, who slept with Bilhah, mother of some of his brothers.

As Jacob lay on his deathbed, he addressed parting words to his sons, and spoke of Reuben like this:

Reuben, you are my first-born, my might and first fruit of my vigour, Exceeding in rank and exceeding in honour.Unstable as water, you shall excel no longer; For when you mounted your father’s bed, you brought disgrace-my couch he mounted! ((Gen. 49:3-4)

And yet Datan and Abiram chose to ignore the shame that lost them their tribal dominance, and stand against Moses and Aaron, presumably in the hope of restoring that advantage for themselves again.

The rest of the story is simply awful. God enters the narrative, telling Moses and Aaron to “separate yourselves from this congregation, that I may consume them in a moment” and they respond by asking God “Shall one man sin and you be angry with the whole community?”  Should the whole community pay the price of the arrogance of the group who challenged?

The test of the firepans leads to the public and horrible spectacle of the rebels and their families swallowed alive when the ground beneath them opened up momentarily, so that they fell into a pit which closed over them.  The two hundred and fifty men of renown who had supported the rebels and who had brought their fire pans and incense were destroyed by a fire that came ‘from the Eternal’ and the rest of the Israelites fled in panic and disarray, terrified by what had been unleashed, terrified for their futures.

So what do we learn? We learn that rebellion against leadership that comes from thwarted ambition is a dangerous event, all the more so when those who lead the rebellion are skilled demagogues who manipulate the language and the reality so that the majority of the people are left confused and unclear.  We learn that leadership needs to be firm and fairly applied, that leaders should not distance themselves from the people and their concerns, take them seriously rather than see them as distractions to the long term plan and irrelevant. We learn that ALL the people have value, all of us matter, and to discount us or ignore us is a strategy that will backfire in time as enough frustration and anger builds for someone to come and use it for their own purposes. We learn not to trust thoughtlessly, but to research and learn for ourselves, to see the world around us through our own eyes and not through the filter of those with an agenda of their own.

Sometimes the Torah portion speaks to the moment in a particularly powerful way. Korach and his fellow leaders were not ab initio coming from a false position, all the people ARE holy, Moses and Aaron’s style of leadership WAS autocratic and did not take account of the feelings of the people enough. But from a platform of rational and defendable positions they shifted to irrational and indefensible actions and a terrible scenario was let loose which had implications for the entry into the land for a generation.


Shelach Lecha: nudged along the path to beyond ourselves

“And the ETERNAL spoke to Moses, saying:  ‘Speak to the children of Israel, and bid them that they make them throughout their generations fringes in the corners of their garments, and that they put with the fringe of each corner a thread of blue.  And it shall be to you for a fringe, that ye may look upon it, and remember all the commandments of the ETERNAL, and do them; and that ye go not about after your own heart and your own eyes, after which ye use to go astray;  that ye may remember and do all My commandments, and be holy to your God.   I am the ETERNAL your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, to be your God: I am the ETERNAL your God.”

It is, maybe, one of the earliest educational strategies – a visual aid to constantly remind one of something important, to teach a constant and immediate awareness of God and of the covenant relationship we have whose conditions – mitzvot – inform every aspect of our lives.

The thread of colour commanded in the mitzvah of tzitzit has long since gone in most ritual garments, since we cannot be sure exactly how to make the dye to create this tekhelet, the blue colour (although in recent years it has made a partial return as some think they have cracked the identity of the chilazon, source of the most expensive colour dye of the ancient world). But the fringes remain – though for most Jews not on their everyday garments, but on the shawls we wear, the tallitot, when we want to make space in our life for prayer.

The idea of the fringes on our clothing is that we will always have with us a reminder of God and of the commandments that we are obliged to fulfil – indeed the fringes are knotted in a particular way to remind us of the number 613, to echo the idea that there are 613 commandments said to be in Torah, so that every time we see them we will remember the covenant and our part in it.  Judaism is a religion of the every day, it is through ordinary mundane quotidian activities that we create the Jewish people, develop Jewish identity.  The fringes on the corners of the garments, the tzitzit, were designed to reinforce this. Whatever we see, whatever we do, there is a Jewish edge to the action, a perspective of obligation and commandment. We are reminded always of the foundation of who we are – we are a covenanted people whose life and behaviour is shaped by the encounter at Sinai, when we agreed to a relationship with God that was to be expressed in how we act in the world.

In the Talmud in a discussion on tzitzit, and on the tekhelet colour mandated in bible, we are told that: “Rabbi Meir used to say: How is tekhelet different from all other colours?  Because tekhelet is like the sea, and the sea is like the sky, and the sky is like [God’s] throne of glory as it says: “Under God’s feet was the likeness of sapphire brickwork, and it was like the essence of heaven in purity.” (Shemot 24:10)  (Menachot 43b). 

It is a curious teaching. For Rabbi Meir is linking the reminder of the tzitzit not only to the commandments, but also to a sense of God. And he does so by inserting stages of a journey so to speak – He doesn’t talk about tekhelet only as colour, but as the colour first of the sea and then of the sky, and only then of the hidden place of God. He seems to want us not just to associate the colour with God, but to think about the connections between us and God – the sea is a place we can reach and touch, a huge swathe of our world, but ultimately finite. The sky though is untouchable for us, and apparently infinite, and only then do we move on to the “throne of glory” – the exaltedness of God. By making us work, stage by stage, Rabbi Meir is teaching us that we can reach up beyond ourselves to gain some sense of connection – not making a comment on the colour of the universe, or a simple mechanistic connection between the colour on the tallit and the strange description of the sapphire pavement found in the book of Exodus. By making us think, by moving us from the tangible and visible, to the intangible visible, to the invisible infinite, we are being taken on a process and a progression that allows us to think beyond ourselves, beyond even what we can normally imagine.

There is in our tradition another version of this statement of Rabbi Meir’s, which makes the idea of progression even clearer. In Midrash Tehillim we read that the tekhelet “resembles the sea and the sea is like the grasses, and the grasses are like the trees, and the trees are like the firmament, and the firmament is like the radiance, and the radiance is like the rainbow, and the rainbow is like the [divine] image” (90:18).

I like this version because it causes us to not only reach beyond ourselves and our world, but to do so slowly, taking our time, looking from sea level to ground level to tree level to sky and beyond. And in this account there is a punch line:  “Rabbi Hezekiah taught: When the children of Israel are wrapped in their prayer shawls, let them not think that they are clothed merely in ordinary blue. Rather, let the children of Israel look upon their prayer shawls as though the glory of the Presence were covering them.” (Midrash Tehillim 90:18).

When we look at the fringes of the tallit, and we remember the original instruction here in parashat Shelach Lecha, we begin to understand the powerful effect of that colour of tekhelet (which has, incidentally remained with us in a sort of echo form in the variant colours of the stripes of the tallit which can range from almost black to a turquoise-ey sky blue, as can the dye from the chilazon, dependent on the age of the mollusc), and which has progressed from the tallit to the flag of Israel.  By using the thread of tekhelet – and then by using a reminder of the thread and the colour and what it makes us think about– we are bridging a gap between our world and the heavens, between ourselves and God. The radiance we are encouraged to think towards becomes like a rainbow – the perpetual sign between God and us that we are under divine protection – takes us to an almost magical link between the worlds.

When we put on our tallit for prayer and wrap ourselves in the fringes we are, so to speak, putting on the seatbelts, checking the mirrors – readying ourselves for a journey towards God. We are land animals, made of earth, adamah – which root is the origin of the word for the colour red – edom. We are physical beings made from the stuff of our ground says the bible, yet our souls yearn for more – the look to connect to more than the material physical world of now. The tekhelet prescribed in our tradition is a recognition of that yearning, and the offer of a way towards what we want – we can look through the natural world around us and from studying it and appreciating it, we can find a way to the creator of all that we see.

This is how Jewish tradition shapes us and forms us – it takes the everyday and makes us notice more. We are asked not to skim through our lives but to examine them, to consider what we are doing, to aspire for more.  It expects mindfulness and it gives us methods and tools for us to achieve this. But on the way to mindfulness it gives us a more pragmatic approach – the commandments are sets of behaviour that will shape us without us even thinking about it – in effect if we behave like a mensch even without thinking about the ethical imperatives or the spiritual growth, but just because that is what is expected from us, we can live our lives and look back and realise we have become a mensch.  The spiritual journey does not have to be too self reflective, we are nudged along the path with reminders to do, to be, to act – and so, in time, to understand and to become.

Beha’alotecha: the silencing of Miriam and the Cushite woman

And Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman whom he had married; for he had married a Cushite woman.” (12:1)



She is the ultimate object, critical to the narrative but without voice or name. She exists only in passivity – the woman that Moses had taken.  Ha’Isha HaKushite, black and female, her presence in the text is enough to irritate Miriam and Aaron, but not enough to make any statement of her own.  Only her femaleness and her blackness are remarkable, and both are cause to keep her powerless. The unseen narrator sets her up against Miriam, the powerful sister of the man to whom she is married, a woman earlier described as a prophetess – yet Miriam too is demeaned and diminished in this interaction.


Framed between the story of the false prophesying of Eldad and Medad, and the divine statement that only Moses’ prophecy is entirely trusted, this is a story about real and illusory power and the two women are ciphers, literally seen in black and white, silenced .


Miriam is described as challenging Moses “on account of the Cushite woman he has taken as wife”, even while the speech reported to us is about the equal prophetic status of the triumvirate of siblings: “Has the Eternal indeed spoken only with Moses?  Has God not spoken also with us?’    And it is noticeable that Miriam alone is punished, even though Aaron had joined her in asserting their status in relation to Moses. Why does the narrator divert our attention towards race and gender when the issue is about the leadership of Moses and the relative status of his sibling co-leaders?


We never learn more about the Cushite woman, about when Moses married her, about her story and how she came to be with the Israelites and the mixed multitude leaving Egypt. We know that ancient civilisations were racially diverse and there is a buried history of black Egyptians which only now is being recognised by scholars, but our modern categories of race are not those of the ancient world. Her description as Cushite signifies only that this is not Zipporah, Moses’ Midianite wife.


It is sometimes said that the story of Miriam and the Cushite woman proves that God has a sense of humour, that Miriam who complained about this black interloper is given her comeuppance by God when her skin is turned white as snow with the impurity of tzara’at. And her anger at her relative loss of leadership status leads to her exclusion from the community, put outside of the camp until her skin heals once more. Comical reversals of fortune.


But there is a murkier thread to this tale. For now both women are silenced, both passive recipients of the narrators attention.  Aaron, who confesses their joint sin, is not only unpunished for his part in challenging Moses’ authority but joins together with him in prayer for her healing, leading the people who are anxiously awaiting her return to camp. Both women are now out of action, their skin colour and their gender apparently rendering them unsuitable for a role in the public space. The power of the men is enhanced.


A Jewish friend of mine, married to a black woman, once told me that their fights usually ended up with her telling him he could always take off his kippah and ‘pass’ in society, but she could never take off her skin, echoing Jeremiah who asks “Can an Ethiopian/Cushite person change their skin, or a leopard their spots?” (Jer13:23) Some things about us are the first thing that people see, and sometimes those people never get past that attribute. Never notice the person inhabiting that skin.  Sometimes they dismiss the person because of the characteristic, ignoring them or silencing them, putting them ‘outside the camp’, not hearing their voice or recognising their cause.

Whatever we might wish, society is neither colour nor gender blind. But noticing characteristics should not lead to disadvantaging their bearers.


The prophet Amos had God ask “Are you not like the Children of the Ethiopians to me, O Children of Israel?”  Bible reminds us that our common humanity is recognised by God who sees beyond the outer aspects. But it also reminds us that we often fail to see that shared humanity for ourselves, that we categorise and judge by gender and by race, and those who are so judged can find themselves trapped without voice or power to change the perception.


We never find out the fate of the unnamed woman from Ethiopia, but we do have one shaft of light at the end of this story. The people wait for Miriam to be healed and brought back to the camp before they move on. She may be chastened, but Miriam is back in the public space, and one day she may yet sing with her unnamed black sister, their voices raised up – and heard and responded to by all.



First published in Jerusalem Report The People and the Book 2015

image “Miriam The Leper” by Rose Rosenthal http://imajewnation.org/the-museum/past-events/freedom-imagined-freedom-lived/part-3/



Shavuot: the voice of God is heard in the voices of ALL the people. (Or women were at Sinai too, and at the kotel)

In a very few days we will be celebrating Shavuot, a festival of biblical origin which can lay claim to being  one of the most mysterious of our holy days. To begin with, it has no fixed date but instead we have to count towards it from the first day of the Omer, the bringing of a sheaf of the new barley harvest which must be offered in thanksgiving before the harvest can be used. In Leviticus 23 we read “And the Eternal said to Moses, Speak to the Children of Israel and tell them, ‘When you are come into the land which I am giving you, and you reap its harvest, then you will bring the first omer of your harvest to the priest, and he will wave the omer before the Eternal for you to be accepted, on the morrow after the Sabbath, the priest will wave it…and you will not eat bread nor parched corn nor fresh corn until this day, until you have brought the offering of God, it is a statute forever…and you will count from the morrow after the Sabbath from the day that you brought the omer of waving, seven weeks shall be complete, until the morning after the seventh week you shall count fifty days, and you shall present a new meal offering to the Eternal” (9-16)

In this opaque text a few things stand out: That we must bring from the new harvest in thanksgiving to the Creator of all before we can eat from it. That we must count a period of fifty days from the bringing of one harvest (barley) till the next harvest (wheat), and that the fiftieth day is also to be a festival with full ritual panoply.

It is a feast of harvest, a festival of first fruits – but so are other festivals. It feels like there is something missing in the text, some other layer that was either so well known as to be pointless to explain, or something so deeply mysterious as to be impossible to explain.  Its name is also problematic – in the same chapter we are told of the festival of matza called Pesach and of the festival of booths called Succot but Shavuot – it just means weeks.

The lacunae were noticed very early on and if nature abhors a vacuum, rabbinic tradition refuses to allow one too, rushing to fill any apparent jump or void in text with explanation and midrash. So to begin – what is the date of Shavuot? Should it always be a Sunday, as it would be if we really counted seven weeks from the ‘morrow after the shabbat’    הַשַּׁבָּת  מִמָּחֳרַת

The Second Temple period was one of great disruption and great creativity. Two powerful groups – the Pharisees (forerunners of the Rabbinic tradition) and the Sadducees (political and priestly elite) differed as to the date of Shavuot. The Sadducees read the text literally – the counting began the day after the Shabbat, while the Pharisees interpreted it, specifically that the word “Sabbath” was a word meaning not just the seventh day, but also “festival”, specifically in is case the festival just described before the text quoted, and therefore the omer counting would begin the day after the first day of Pesach.  At a stroke Shavuot was linked to Pesach and with a little creative accounting with the days of the journey towards Mt Sinai the Rabbis could attach the events at Sinai, the giving of the Ten Commandments and the creation of peoplehood with Torah as its powerful identifier to this date. So Exodus linked to Revelation, Freedom to Responsibility, and Shavuot stopped being simply an agricultural festival on a date that could vary and became a fixed point – a high point – in our journey to Judaism.  Shavuot became zeman matan torahteinu – the time of the giving of our Torah – the oral as well as the written – and more than that became the date of the unbreakable covenant made between God and the Jewish people.

So by extension, Shavuot became understood to be the date that we became not just a people, but God’s people. God descended far enough from the heavens to build a different kind of relationship with us, offered us a gift in order to delineate that relationship. And the language of marriage came into play – God wooed us in the desert and brought us to Sinai where the ‘wedding’ took place. God plays the part of the groom, Israel of the bride, and the words of Hosea are used “I will betroth you to me for ever, I will betroth you in righteousness and justice, In love and compassion, I will betroth you in faithfulness and you will know the Eternal (Hosea 2:2.1-2.). The mystical tradition went so far as to create a wedding liturgy within the Shavuot service, and famously Israel Najara, the poet and mystic of Sfat, created a ketubah to be read before the Torah reading in which God as bridegroom and Israel as bride are symbolically betrothed.

Some texts see the marriage as between God (groom) and Israel (bride) with the Torah as the binding contract; others see it as between Israel as groom and Torah as bride, with God as witness and the Oral Torah with Shabbat as dowry. Whichever role the participants took, the imagery of the marriage relationship is one of the most potent of the festival, and it points to the power that the rabbinic tradition saw in the marriage relationship.

The people of Israel as the bride of God, the covenant of marriage being marked with Torah, with Shabbat, with gifts that bring us closer to God – it is extraordinary in so many ways.  The position of the woman in this image – that she is Israel, that Israel is fundamentally feminine, and that the relationship is one of real love and partnership between both parties to the agreement -this is the ideal of marriage. Right from the creation stories in Genesis, where God created men and women at the same time, or where God created woman to be ezer k’negdo, a partner and help who was equal and in dynamic tension to the man, the relationship of marriage between two companions in bible and in the early rabbinic world was real partnership and both parties had their own agency and autonomy which contributed to a strong and confident enterprise.

Quite how we got to the position today from this ideal and idealised partnership to women being marginalised and disempowered in many areas of ‘traditional’ Judaism is a long and painful journey.  How has Israel, the bride of God, relegated its own women to behind a mechitza, distanced us from prayer and from learning, spun stories of idealisation that turn the Shavuot ideas on their head, (for example those about the special spirituality of women which means they don’t need to perform mitzvot). Over time there has been a persistent and incremental and continuing removal of women from the discourse of partnership, from the public space and from the partnership which is developed and rooted in the Shavuot mythology of the marriage between God and Israel.  At Sinai the mountain trembled and the people trembled and all the people stood together at the foot of the mountain and all the people answered together saying “everything that God has spoken we will do” as the voice of the shofar was heard and God answered Moses with a voice.  Voices mingling and speaking and answering – God’s voice, Moses’ voice, the voice of all the people, the voice of the shofar. But now it seems that some voices have precedence and other voices must be stilled. After generations of lying fallow and unused in Talmud the dictum of kol isha has surfaced in rabbinic thinking as a prop to their wish to remove women’s voices from their hearing.

Yesterday on Rosh Chodesh Sivan, the women of the wall (WOW)  in Jerusalem held their service for the new month early in the morning. 80 women and more prayed together from their hearts, welcoming the new month and the upcoming festival where Torah was given to ALL the people at Sinai. The prayer was respectful and peaceful and yet – Lesley Sachs, the Director of WOW was detained with the Torah scroll immediately following RH Sivan prayers. Despite a quiet prayer, Sachs was held by police for “disturbing the public order”.  The man who oversees the administration of the wall Rabbi Rabinowitz told journalists that she had smuggled the Torah scroll in under her skirt. An extraordinarily offensive accusation that was provably untrue – she was wearing trousers. But this insight into the mind of the ‘traditional’ rabbi tells us a lot as to why women’s voices are being silenced – what exists under a woman’s skirt is somehow terrifying, our sexuality must be controlled and restrained, a woman’s voice is her nakedness/lewdness in the minds of those who distort the biblical quotation (from a woman’s voice is her sweetness)

We are approaching the anniversary of what happened at Sinai when ALL the people witnessed the divine theophany and ALL the people accepted Torah.  This Shavuot it is even more important that we make sure that ALL the voices can be heard in our public spaces and places, in teaching and learning, in work and in play.  For if God chose to do to Israel what some in Israel choose to do to women, then the marriage must surely be voided on grounds of complete deviation from the agreement.  The countdown is nearly over, the last days of the omer are here. It has been a period of reflection and quietness, readying ourselves for the revelation. Let’s hope the revelation takes us back to our roots, and that the voice of women in prayer and learning will once again be heard with the voice of men doing the same.

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Parashat Bemidbar:counting a community not calculating for the individual


We are in the time of the counting the omer – the days between Pesach and Shavuot – which give an awareness of, and a prominence to the link between Freedom (Pesach) and Responsibility (Shavuot).

Counting is something that has long roots in Jewish tradition- we count days and weeks of the omer, we count the days of penitence between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we count the years for the shemittah year and we count the multiples of shemittah years for the Jubilee year. The scribe will count the letters written in a Torah scroll in order to check that there are none added and none removed accidentally.  We even count the days till brit and the “white days” in the menstrual cycle.  But counting people has always been a problem in Jewish tradition – it is forbidden to take a direct numbering of the people of Israel and plague was often the result for those who tried. The Talmud tells us “Rabbi Eleazar said: Whosoever counts Israel, transgresses a [biblical] prohibition, as it is said: “Yet the number of the children of Israel shall be as the sand of the sea, which cannot be measured” [Hosea]. R. Nachman b. Isaac said: He would transgress two prohibitions, for it is written: ‘Which cannot be measured or numbered’.

Counting people can be said to take away the uniqueness of the individual, turning them simply into a number, dehumanizing the person. At the same time one could argue that as every number is different, the person is stripped not so much of individuality as of community. Yet community power resides within numbers. The development of the three patriarchs to the seventy souls who went down with Jacob to Egypt, to the over six hundred thousand at Sinai show how the community, the peoplehood, grew.  We still understand a community to be the number we can count on the fingers of two hands – a minyan is ten people. Numbers bind us into community and they bind us to our roots. The traditional way of counting a minyan is to recite verse 9 of psalm 28 – the ten words of which being “hoshia et amecha uvarech et nachalatecha ur’eim venasseim ad ha’olam – Save Your people, and bless Your inheritance and tend them, and carry them for ever. Another traditional way is to say “not one, not two, not three etc”

The fear of counting people and thus separating them from the community and possibly from their own humanity has long roots in Judaism – only God is really allowed to count us, only God is seen as having the ability to count without discounting so to speak. Yet the need to understand the community and to be able to count people into the community continues.  And the way that bible recommends is that we ask for a contribution from people and each contribution is counted.

It isn’t so odd as it sounds. Effectively the half shekel poll tax in order to support the Temple was both a fundraising activity and a way of measuring the numerical strength of the community. But I particularly resonate to the requirement that asks of people that in order for their presence to be recognised, they should offer some basic support to the community, and with this support they will be counted in.

The idea of being in a community by virtue of what you are offering to that community – not life changing amounts of money per se as the half shekel was a deliberately small amount designed to be possible for everyone to give, but a contribution nevertheless is the expression of an ancient idea that you are part of the community if you choose to offer something of yourself to it, if you partake of it, if you participate within it. You are part of the community if the community can count on you.

Listening to the emotive and emotional arguments about the wider community issue on the agenda today – the arguments about whether we should remain in the European Union or leave it and forge a new path– we hear a lot of words but can discern very little useful information to help frame our thoughts. One recent analysis of the words used most by the two campaigns show that Remain repeatedly use the three words “Jobs”, “Trade”, Businesses”, while the Leave campaign use “controlled” “NHS” and “Money”. It seems clear that the argument for economic stability sits with the Remain campaign, the argument for autonomy with the Leave. But as we move from Pesach to Shavuot, from Freedom to Responsibility, and into the book of Bemidbar, of the transitional neither-here-nor-there liminal space of the wilderness on whose other side will be the border with the promised land I find myself more and more cross that the language being used is of self-interest and self-regard, of “what can I not give to the community” and “what can I get from the community”.

Where is the rhetoric of commonality or of shared aims and aspirations? Where is the language of supporting each other, of helping each other to make a better world?

All I hear is calculation, and I am reminded of a quotation attributed to the architect Daniel Libeskind that “Life it is not just a series of calculations and a sum total of statistics, it’s about experience, it’s about participation, it is something more complex and more interesting than what is obvious.”

Life is best lived in relationship, in community with others, sometimes taking and sometimes giving but always associating with the other. The more I think of how we count a minyan – with the formula “not one, not two, not three”, the more I like the reminder that we are bound together, that while we may be individuals with our own self-interest and self-regard, what is most important about us is that we together can rise over our individualism in order to form something much bigger and much more nourishing for us all – we can  form community.