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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lag B’omer. A moral tale for election day

Election Day will fall on Lag b’Omer –the thirty third day of the omer period where we count the days between Pesach and Shavuot, between Exodus and Revelation, between Freedom and Purpose.

The period of the counting of the omer is traditionally a quiet and introspective one, a time of semi mourning, although it is not clear for what we are mourning. One tradition says we are mourning the deaths of the students of Rabbi Akiva who died in a plague because they had not shown enough respect to each other. The plague ended on the 33rd day of the omer, and so this is a day taken out of the mourning period, a day for celebration and bonfires, before we go back into our counting the days till Shavuot. The story does not make sense – why would we mourn those who behaved so badly? Why do we go back into mourning after lag b’omer? But what does make sense is the idea of why God sent the plague – because these students of the celebrated rabbi were disrespectful of each other.

There is a long tradition in seeing the hand of the divine in natural disasters – from the ten plagues in Egypt onwards Jewish teachers have linked what insurers call ‘Acts of God’ to spiritual lessons about God’. Sometimes, as with the story trying to add meaning to the minor festival of Lag b’Omer there is a morality tale that we can understand. When people do not value each other and treat each other with respect, catastrophe can ensue. Indeed we also have the tradition that the fall of Jerusaelm was essentially down to sinat chinam, to the populace hating each other without reason.

But sometimes this tradition gets out of hand. This week after the terrible earthquake in Nepal with thousands of people dead and many thousands more struggling to survive in desperate circumstances, two rabbis chose to make a linkage. One, Rabbi Yosef Mizrachi posted approvingly on his Facebook page “All the idol worshiping places in Nepal are now destroyed”. And then The chief of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox religious court, Rabbi Moshe Sternbuch, told followers that the earthquake was meant as a lesson to the Jewish people to stop the conversions of people to Judaism done by Government paid rabbis within the IDF (and not under the control of his court)

I guess if we are going to have a habit of interpreting events in the natural world to give us moral lessons from the divinity we are always going to risk those voices who are so sure that their agenda is also God’s agenda come to the fore. And in the days of social media (a facebook page noch) these people will put their ideology across.

It is always difficult to be sure that we hear the authentic voice of God, but there is one sure fire test – if it is harmful to any people or peoples, all of whom our bible reminds us right at the start are created in the image of God, then we can be pretty sure this may be our viewpoint but it isn’t God’s.

We are counting the days between Pesach and Shavuot, we are in a strange period of quiet and reflection, we are readying ourselves for Revelation, for meeting with God, for learning what our purpose is to be. We will remember the students of Rabbi Akiva who died, either because they were disrespectful of each other or, in another tradition, because they were rebelling against the harsh Roman Government of the day and fell in a great battle. Maybe both – revolting against a government that did not care about them, and passing on the lack of care to their fellows.

The next few days and weeks will see the election promises recede into the past and real politik take over. But whatever the colour and shape of our new governing body, it behoves them to remember to treat all of us with respect, to remember that we are all valuable human beings and equal before the creator, and that while God may not intervene in a dramatic way to show Divine pleasure or displeasure, there will most certainly be another election and we, the masses of ordinary people, will be able to affirm or dislodge them.

Counting Down the Days: Between Pesach and Shavuot

Between Pesach and Shavuot we count. Every evening we tick off the day that has just passed, and we label it – adding up the weeks and the days of the omer, building up to the moment at Sinai when the covenant between God and the Israelites was signed, the moment when Judaism might be said to be created. It was at Sinai that the group of ex slaves who had descended from Jacob first got to understand something about God, and it was at Sinai that they began to realise that God required something from them that was more than the usual obeisance and paying off. An association was formed with obligations and expectations on both sides. Each party began to understand that the other was far more complex and ambiguous than they had appreciated until now, that much was hidden and even more was yet to emerge. At Sinai the God who had spoken to the ancestors, who had battled Pharaoh with plagues and signs and wonders, who had led them in the wilderness with a pillar of cloud and a pillar of fire became something quite different – became of God of relationship and connection. And the disparate group of people with some shared stories and a collective present became united because of their experience there.

We don’t really know what happened at Sinai, some three months after the people had streamed out of Egypt into an uncertain freedom. But we know that the event shaped them and it continues to shape us – the revelation at Sinai, even while the people kept their distance from the mountain, made them the commanded people of God. We agreed to be God’s workers in the world and God agreed to be our God. Even now we struggle to make sense of that agreement, and we constantly nuance and finesse and philosophize in our struggle to seek its meaning. We take some control where we can, so we count the days from Pesach to Shavuot, waiting to get there and to experience it again – maybe this will be the year when we understand a little more.