Shabbat Shalom with a Heart Healthy Dose of Torah – B’midbar
We find ourselves amid the Census. Who would think that trying to find out who is here would be so controversial? Isn’t a person – a person? On the face, it seems that any attempt to limit the nature of who gets counted would be unfair – perhaps even bigoted. In many cases, this presumption could be accurate. The problem, though, is in figuring out the purpose of the Census.
This week, as we open the third book of the Torah (Numbers), we find Israel wandering through the midst of the wilderness. The book opens with God’s request for Moses to take a census. “Take a census of the whole Israelite community by their clans and families, listing every man by name, one by one. You and Aaron are to count according to their divisions all the men in Israel who are twenty years old or more and able to serve in the army.”
Through this Census, Moses knew the might of his army, as he enters foreign and hostile lands. Later in the story, when the time comes to apportion land in Canaan (Israel), the tribal numbers do not have significant impact on the allotment of land. Everyone matters – even if some matter more than others in limited circumstances.
We find another census in the first few verses of 2 Samuel Chapter 24. God instructs King David to take a census. Please remember that when reading a text, one cannot hear the tone with which characters speak. Immediately after the Census, David learns that he sinned and it cost Israel 70,000 people from a plague brought by “God’s wrath.” An obvious question would ponder why God would instruct David to do something, and then punish him for obeying. 1 Chronicles tells this story again, but the figure of the Devil’s advocate urges David to count the Census. What we know is that David was often too sure of himself and that his audacity sometimes outweighed his wisdom.
Some scholars believe that David’s sin rooted in his pride. He knew he had amassed a large following in defeating the Philistines. God had not instructed him to prepare for battle afterward. Now, assuming for the moment that the story is historical, he would have also known that Deuteronomy forbade a King from having a standing army (Deuteronomy 17:16-17). The Census was only to aggrandize himself.
Our American Census serves many purposes. It serves to help us decide voting districts. It serves to help us understand rural and urban needs. One can find the full list of goals of the US Census at this link: https://2020census.gov/content/dam/2020census/materials/partners/2020-01/Uses-of-Census-Bureau-Data-in-Federal-Funds-Distribution.pdf. Of note, not all services at stake depend on citizenship.
That said when the government starts whittling away at who can and cannot be counted, it skews the census results and deprives communities (and their residents) of much-needed resources, while affording communities with disproportionate affluence more power. The appropriate data for specific needs becomes discernible from the corpus of data collected.
Our tradition teaches that God made each of us in the image of divinity. And yet, “A human being mints many coins from the same mold, and they are all identical. But the holy one, blessed by God, strikes us all from the mold of the first human and, yet, each one of us is unique.” (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5) the same Tractate of Talmud tells us that we are responsible for each other. Ultimately, From Eitz Chayim, “One measures the decency of a society by the way it cares for its least powerful members.”
Additionally, Pirke Avot teaches us that one must not separate one’s self from the community. Rational or irrational, many of the most vulnerable in our society are afraid to participate in the Census. They fear what the government may or may not do with their data. History speaks loudly in the behaviors of people who have experienced oppression. African Americans are leery of medical testing since the Tuskegee Institute nightmare. Given the current status of immigration disasters (Stemming several administrations, not just this one), even documented aliens are wary.
Too often, people get to this text in Torah and skip it. Counting people is tedious, especially if it is not history. On the contrary, this text prompts the very conversations that have divided so many people over the last year. We need to know that everyone counts – everyone matters. Only then have we fulfilled the teachings of our prophets, acknowledging, “How good it is that we, as siblings, can all dwell together (Psalm 133).”