This past Shabbat, we began the reading of another book of the Torah. In Hebrew that book is called BAMIDBAR, which means “In the Wilderness” but in English it has another name – NUMBERS.
Why the difference between the Hebrew and the English names? It is a matter of culture.
In the ancient culture of the Jewish people, books, and indeed weekly Torah portions were named after the first significant uncommon word in the text. Tonight’s text begins with the statement “Vaydaber Adonai el Moshe bamidbar Sinai” – “Adonai spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai.” While, of course, the words “Adonai” and “Moshe” are unquestionably more significant than “bamidbar,” still since so many sentences in the Torah begin with the phrase “Vaydaber Adonai el Moshe” we skip it and go to the next significant word. Ergo “Bamidbar.”
The English title of Torah books follows the Greek tradition of giving them names which are more reflective of their content and theme. Indeed, with the exception of the book of NUMBERS, the more familiar names of the other books of the Torah are actually their Greek names – GENESIS, EXODUS, etc.
So why is the book of NUMBERS called the book of NUMBERS? Because it begins with a taking of a census of the Jewish people in the wilderness. This census is taken in the second year of their sojourn in the wilderness and it is taken tribe by tribe, and included all males twenty years of age and older. According to the text, the total count was 603,550.
This is not the first time in our history that Jews were counted. There is an earlier census in the book of EXODUS which comes up with an identical number. Then, of course, we see in the very beginning of the book of EXODUS that the number of Jews accompanying Jacob into Egypt were 70.
It would appear that counting Jews is a longstanding practice among out people; one which we still seriously engage in today. It remains very important for us to know the numbers: How many Jews were killed in the Holocaust? 6 million. How many Jews live in Israel? – 5,931,000. How many Jews live in the United States? – 6,588,065. How many Jews live in the Quad Cities? – approximately 800. How many Jews belong to Temple Emanuel? – Approximately 155 households. How many Jews attend our religious school? – 63. How many Jews attend Shabbat services – sadly usually under 20. There is no question but that in Jewish life we are always playing the numbers game.
But perhaps for all these millennia, we’ve had it all wrong. Perhaps rather than focusing our attention on counting Jews we ought to be focusing it on whether or not our Jews count.
This, my friends, is both a private concern and a community concern.
Privately, each and every one of us should be asking ourselves, “As a Jew, how much do I count? Have I made my life into a Jewish presence? Have I consciously applied my Jewish values in the daily conduct of my life? As a Jew, have I stood up and been counted, when it really counts? When my days on earth are over and I am physically gone, will my presence on this planet have counted for any good?” It is simply not enough for us to be counted among the Jews. If our lives, as Jews, are to have any purpose whatsoever, then we need to be counted on as Jews. We need to be there, living our lives as lives of mitzvot, both the ethical mitzvot and the ritual mitzvot. We cannot just talk about Torah. If we are to count as Jews, we need to live Torah.
Just as we need to make sure that we count as individual Jews, we also need to insure that our Jewish community also counts, and counts as a Jewish community. Just as we as individuals need to be there, our Jewish community needs to be there. As a community, we need to be up front and visible, presenting to the world around us a model of what it means for a community to operate according to Jewish values. We need to make of our community, a community which is proud of its Judaism; not just privately or secretly proud but publicly proud. As a Jewish community, we have nothing to be ashamed of. Quite the contrary! We should wear the badge of our Jewish identity with pride.
Just as we, as individuals, must have our every action influenced by our Jewish values, so should we as a community have our every action influenced by those values. Our community should be driven by those values. We should not wait for others in the general community to signal for us what is the right thing to do. Our Jewish tradition informs us as to what is the right thing, and as a community we should act upon that information, even if it means that sometimes we stand and act alone. By conducting our Jewish communal life in this way, that is how we make our Jewish community count for something; count for something good and something truly Jewish.
When Jews come to the synagogue to observe Shabbat, by our very presence in the sanctuary on Shabbat, we have not only been counted in our minyan, but more importantly, we have made ourselves count as Jews. We have made ourselves count as Jews because our very presence raises up the sanctity of Shabbat; this day declared holy by God from the very first week of Creation. We have made ourselves count as Jews by actively affirming our intimate connections with the Jewish people, our Jewish heritage, and our special Jewish relationship with God. Accomplishing all of that – taking such actions as to help us to better count as a Jew – is far more important and far more meaningful than merely being counted as a Jew; being considered Jew number 13 of 21 who happen to have attended the Shabbat service this week; than being Jew number 35 on the Temple membership roster.
And just as our presence in the synagogue on Shabbat is a demonstration of how we can count as Jews, more that merely be counted, so is our presence at such Jewish values activities as adult education and Tikkun Olam activities also demonstrations of how we can count as Jews. For when, for example, in the Fall, the members of my congregation walk in the CROP Walk Against World Hunger, while the numbers of our congregants who walk are impressive, still it is not so much the numbers who walk but rather that all of us who are walking, are walking for a cause; are walking for a cause very much in consonance the teachings and values of our faith. In so walking, we are demonstrating those Jewish values in action. In other words, in that moment, as Jews, we count.
My prayer for all of us is that as we continue to travel the course of our lives, we will forever strive to live Jewish lives that count.
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