Shabbat Shalom with a Heart Healthy Dose of Torah–B’midbar

We are starting a new book of the Torah this week. We embark on reading the book of Numbers. In Hebrew, the name of the book is “Bamidbar” (In the wilderness), because the Hebrew titles are based on the first significant word of the book. In English, each book receives a title based on its general theme. So, this book deals a lot with counting the census. Hence, the book is called “Numbers.” So, we begin by counting the people. Well, we count some of the people. The census counts men of military age. Yes, sadly, it seems that only men count. This text presents a really timely conundrum, for whatever one’s politics, we witnessed history this week, as a woman presumptively won the nomination to represent one of our two major political parties in the Presidential election. As we read the Torah text calling on us to set up the exclusively male military for our people, we will potentially be choosing to have a woman serve as “Commander in Chief.”

Theologians spent hundreds of generations training us to believe that the Bible was male dominant, and that the male dominance is “God’s will.” We know of current religious sects … even whole denominations, who fashion their dogma to hold women as second class citizens. In a few cases (including western religions) women are considered “chattel,” and subject to the will and whim of their husbands. Many even blame Eve for the existence of death (ignoring that, even if the Eden story is true, she also brought, love, children, values, and much more, too).

The potential of a woman leading a nation is not new, but it is “news” because of the way in which we have seen “Good Ole Boy” networks work hard to close ranks and keep women paid less than men in the work force, bodily objectified in the media, and held back from religious and political leadership. Clearly Golda Meir, Margaret Thatcher, Benazir Bhutto, Park Geun Hye, Angela Merkel, and others have broken the glass ceiling in their nations, though not without struggles.

Even so, men have run the military, no differently than we read in this week’s portion. “It is a man’s world.” In meeting with more fundamentalistic colleagues over the years, I have “enjoyed” baiting this conversation. Inevitably, they point out that the language of the Bible even reminds us that God is the “Father.” They, of course, hate when I demonstrate feminine names for God in scripture (Hebrew is malleable that way), but more concerning is their ignorance of the text that tells us that men and women filled leadership roles … and that the women in the Bible often did so more effectively. Devorah is the most successful general. Yael and Esther demonstrated incredible courage. Like her or not, Delilah out maneuvered Sampson. To the point of this commentary, though, while we begin the book counting the men, we will conclude the book in a few months with the stories of Zelophechad’s daughters (he died without sons). On behalf of these young ladies all rules of inheritance change. Who gets to own property, represent the family name, and hold status in the tribe becomes egalitarian. Commentaries exist claiming that men marrying them would have to take their family name to keep Zelophecahd’s legacy alive.

Closely read, one can argue that the biblical text actually intends to demonstrate the egalitarianism of creation. As we read history, we cannot deny the reality that men have physically over powered women in the world. The purpose of religion and faith cannot have value if it simply affirms and perpetuates the injustice. It has to lead us to see beyond the sordid pursuit of power. For me, that this book begins with a male census, and concludes with a much broader message of who counts and matters is itself a message compelling our own spiritual growth. We being life in a world rooted in ego and power, but faith is supposed to lift us to greater truths. All politics aside, and specifically, however one chooses to vote, I pray that we can appreciate the opportunity to break through some of the barriers that hold us back from respecting each other … on equal footing, for that is how God created us. Shabbat Shalom.