Shabbat Bamidbar 5780 Sermon
Congregation Beit Simcha, Tucson, Arizona
Shabbat Shalom. In spite of Heather’s brilliant analysis of our parshah this week, in most ways Bamidbar is a stupendously dull portion, one of the least superficially interesting Torah portions of the entire year. After all, it’s nothing more than a series of lists, a counting, a census of people. How many were in the tribe of Reuben, head by head, one by one, age twenty and over, all who are able to go out to war? 46,500. How many were in the tribe of Shimon, head by head, one by one, age twenty and over, all who are able to go out to war? 59,300. How many in the tribe of Gad, Judah, Issachar, Zevulun, Ephraim, Menasseh, Benjamin, Dan, Asher, Naphtali, head by head, one by one, age twenty and over, all who are able to go out to war, on and on, thousands upon thousands, all counted one at a time? Numbers and numbers and numbers, added together, a Torah portion only an accountant could love.
On closer examination, it looks—well, even less intriguing. More details about the arrangement of the camp. More minutiae relating to the census. Nothing with the vaguest whiff of interest or challenge or meaning.
In fact, when you come right down to it, it looks a whole lot like the regulations for the establishment of a census. Count each and every person carefully, total them up, move on to the next area or region. Each and every single individual is tallied. A good process for the statisticians, but what can it possibly mean to us? Does the annual reading of Bamidbar explain why there are so many Jewish CPA’s?
In an interesting sidelight of history, one of the first duties of the United States government under the new Constitution—the one we still use—was to take a census of the population, by state. Every qualified individual in the entire country was to be counted once very decade. Each person had to be recorded and tallied regularly. This is still done, of course, and the results of the decennial census help determine everything from congressional representation to the allocation of federal funding. Each American is counted regularly, including this year, 2020. This tradition is so strong that even when more efficient means of tabulating populations are developed—scientific sampling, for example—the resistance is fierce. We actually prefer to be counted in the old, archaic way. And don’t miss your own census request for information this year—they'll come looking for you!
So how much does one human life matter? There are so many of us here on earth today, much more than 7 billion people on this planet. How much could one human life really matter? There are philosophies afoot today that assert that people only matter in the collective. They used to be called Socialism or Marxism; nowadays there are other variations, such as the Communitarianism of Amitai Etzioni. But Judaism has always believed that each and every human life has meaning, is holy, because each of us can truly change the world.
Consider, if you will, an oddity in the text of our Siddur. In most prayer books the Shema is written as it is in the book of Deuteronomy in the Torah, with the large ayin at the end of the word Shema and a large dalet at the end of the word Echad. If you don’t believe me, turn to pages 34 and 35 in your prayer books. There it is: Shema with a large ayin, echad with a large dalet. Curious, no?
There are many interpretations as to why the ayin and dalet of these two words of our most important prayer—our must important Jewish idea of all, monotheism—are written it this way. But the most famous, and most powerful, says that the two letters, near the beginning and at the end of the Shema, actually form a word: Eid, in Hebrew, which means witness. The midrash tells us that the Shema itself—the holiest statement of Jewish belief, God is one—is meaningless unless we are witnesses to its truth. Only when we accept this phenomenal concept do we begin to understand Judaism, or indeed all ethics. We each matter. Everyone counts.
We will hear this same concept again in six days or so on the holiday of Shavu’ot, which commemorates receiving the Ten Commandments at Sinai. After counting out each day of the 49 from Passover to Shavuot, counting the Omer—another accounting process raised to the status of holiness—we will learn that in Jewish tradition, every single Israelite human being alive stood at the foot of Mt. Sinai and heard God’s word. And not only every Jewish human being alive back then, some 3250 years ago, but every human being not yet born, every Jew ever to be, stood at Sinai as well and experienced God’s presence. We all, each of us, have importance because we all, each of us, stood at Sinai.
That is a particularly powerful idea when we are in midst of a pandemic in which many lives around the world have been lost, close to 100,000 right here in America. Knowing that each individual has meaning, that everyone’s individual achievements matter, reminds us of just how much is lost at a sad time like this. Because whether or not we reach our fullest potential, we need to know that we each matter to our families, to our communities, to our world.
Bamidbar teaches this lesson in a much more basic way. Because this system of counting, reminds us that we each matter to our people, our nation, and, most importantly, to our God.
I’d like to turn to another reinforcement of this concept of individual purpose. It is the observance of Memorial Day this weekend.
Memorial Day is a good time to reflect on an important and serious question: how do we go about remembering those individuals we have lost who have honored our society? For the ways in which we remember each and every person who died for our country says a lot about us as a nation.
Memorial Day weekend was once a solemn and serious time for commemorating our war dead. Nowadays, of course, it’s mostly just a good excuse to begin the summer and head off for vacation, assuming we can ever go anywhere on vacation again… Still, it’s just another three-day weekend for most people. That’s actually a shame, for remembering our honored dead is a moral responsibility, and it has great resonance in Jewish tradition.
Our American Memorial Day began in New York State, in a town oddly called Waterloo, just a year after the end of the Civil War, when communities began to observe Decoration Day to honor the dead of that great conflict. Within a couple of years the observance had become national and near universal, a sign of the broad sense of loss that the terrible American Civil War had created.
While a specific American Memorial Day may date from the 1860’s, the idea of having a designated time to remember and honor the dead is particularly normative for Judaism, and has been for many hundreds of years. Four times a year we Jews observe a special service called Yizkor, remembrance that allows all of us who have lost loved to ones to gather together and remember their lives and meaning to us. A week from tomorrow morning our holiday of Shavu’ot will include the Yizkor memorial service.
In addition, there are two other Jewish versions of Memorial Day that are contemporary versions of the commemoration. Yom haShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, and Yom HaZikaron, Israeli Memorial Day, both fall in late spring, and have great importance for many Jews. You could say that we Jews have a particular affinity for the somber observances of Memorial Days, perhaps because we have so often lost people under tragic circumstances.
And of course we conclude every service with the saying of the Kaddish Yatom, the Mourner’s Kaddish, a small version of Memorial Day enacted regularly.
So in the early heat of a Sonoran Desert summer it seems very Jewish to take a few moments to remember those, to paraphrase Abraham Lincoln’s timeless phrase from the best, and shortest, memorial speech ever given, who gave their lives that our nation might live.
Because they each, individually, mattered to our nation. Just as each and every member has meaning to our congregation; just as each citizen, every living being created in the image of God, must matter in our society.
And just as Bamidbar teaches us that we each matter to God, every one of us.
In the Jewish view of the world it is the individual who can make the greatest difference, who has the capacity to change the world, to create goodness and sanctity. It the single person, each one of us, who can bring blessing. And every one of us brings his or her own blessings, has her or his own accomplishments.
On this Shabbat, may we find our own way to recognize holiness in each person we encounter. And may we seek to build a society dedicated to recognizing that sacredness with universal respect.