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Names, Not Numbers – Bemidbar 5780

When I was a student at the Jewish Theological Seminary, students would make funny videos for Purim that we would share at the Purim se’udah, the festive daytime Purim meal. One that I will never forget featured a rabbinical student stuck in the beit midrash, the big study hall where students would gather to learn traditional texts together. The doors are locked and he cannot get out, and it’s time to daven minhah (recite the afternoon service). So he gathers together a minyan (prayer quorum) of familiar, well-loved books: the dictionary of rabbinical Hebrew and Aramaic by Rabbi Marcus Jastrow, the book of Talmudic terminology by Rabbi Yitzhak Frank, a volume of Talmud edited by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, and so forth. He stands them up in a circle, as if they are davening with him. These books were so familiar to all of us that we referred to them not by their titles, but by the names of their authors. Rabbi Jastrow, z”l, although he passed away in 1903, was a dear friend to all of us through his dictionary.

Rabbi Marcus Jastrow

Parashat Bemidbar begins with a census. (A particularly hot topic right now, of course, because 2020 is a census year here in America.) Bemidbar is the first Torah reading in the book of the same name, which is called “Numbers” in English. Why Numbers? Because it begins with a whole lot of census data. (Hebrew names of the books and the parashiyyot / weekly Torah readings are derived from the first significant Hebrew word at the beginning of the book or parashah; the English names, mostly Greek, are thematic.)

We, the Jews, have been obsessed with numbers (not the book, but the concept) particularly since the late 19th century, when Jewish historians and demographers in Eastern Europe began the enterprise of studying their people. And yet, as you can see, there is a basis for this obsession in the Torah; this is one of a few passages that counts the Israelites. 

And yet, I am drawn to the fact that immediately after God gives Moshe the imperative to count the people, the Torah then launches into names. “Ve-eleh shemot ha-anashim asher ya’amdu ittekhem.” (Bemidbar / Numbers 1:5) “And these are the names of the people that will stand with you.” And because of this passage, the Torah preserves not only the names of Moshe and Aharon and Miriam, not only the names of the twelve tribes, that is, the twelve sons of Ya’aqov, but also such names as Shelumiel ben Tzurishaddai and Elishama ben Ammihud, two of the tribal chieftains that were identified this morning. And let’s face it: I’m sure Shelumiel and Elishama were great guys, along with Pagi’el ben Okhran and Gamaliel ben Pedahzur, but they are not exactly well-known figures in Jewish life. 

The 16th-century Italian commentator Rabbi Ovadiah Seforno, noting the presence of this list of names up front in a passage primarily about numbers, tells us that there is a reason that the names are mentioned here, instead of merely the numbers. Everyone of that generation, he says, was identified individually by a name that expressed his/her personal character. Not all of those names are in the Torah, of course, but Seforno wants us to think of them as individuals, not merely numbers.

Other commentators observe that the census was completed, to use contemporary parlance, with non-anonymized data, i.e. they counted the people by name, not merely by numbers. And why? The 14th-century Provençal commentator Rabbi Levi ben Gershom points to a traditional Jewish superstition about counting people: if they do it by name, rather than number, he suggests, it would not bring a plague upon the Israelites. 

(You may know that there are a few related customs when trying to figure out how many people are in the room to make a minyan, a quorum of ten people, like using a scriptural verse that contains ten words, or the tremendously charming and somewhat confusing, “Not one, not two,” method. My father, the mathematician, really likes that one.)

Indeed, even the commandment from God to count the people suggests the personal nature of the count. The text uses the idiom, “Se’u et rosh kol adat benei Yisrael.” (Bemidbar 1:2) “Lift up the head of each of the Israelites.”

We do not merely count people. We recognize their names; we lift up their heads, as if to see their faces, as if to acknowledge their humanity.

Perhaps some of us have known people with numbers tattooed on their arms. My father-in-law’s number was A-7082; his name was Ervin Hoenig. Part of the Nazi system of dehumanization was to replace names with numbers. 

At this time, when we mourn so many that our nation has lost due to the mishandling of the virus response by our authorities, we might remember that each of the roughly 100,000 dead Americans each had a story, each had people who loved them, each had lives in which they sought meaning and love and companionship.

From the New York Times’ listing of names of 100,000 COVID-19 victims, 5/24/2020

People are kind of hard-wired to count ourselves. The Zoom software that many of us are using now tells us exactly how many devices are connected.

But the value of gathering – for prayer, for learning, for mourning, for celebrating – is not how many people showed up to a service or a program or how many times an online video was streamed.  Rather, it is whether or not lives were touched by the content. Dr. Ron Wolfson, professor of education at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles, who has dedicated much of his recent work to helping synagogues improve themselves, points out that it does not matter how many people show up to a class or a program or even a service, but rather, how many relationships were made or strengthened.

I suppose that is the essential challenge that we face right now as a community. How do we build or enhance relationships when we are so far apart from each other? Do online minyanim, for example, reinforce personal connections?

Building relationships is an essential part of Jewish community, of course. But the most valuable thing, and the foundation of all relationships, is Torah. That is why our tradition suggests that the depth of commitment to learning Torah is so great. That is why Rambam (Mishneh Torah Hilkhot Talmud Torah 3:10-11) teaches us that Torah cannot be acquired if you are well-fed, or during the day, when there are too many distractions. One must be hungry and focused to truly learn Torah.

Rambam, writing in the 12th century, was mostly drawing on early rabbinic literature from a millennium earlier. In the wake of the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 CE, these ancient rabbis turned Judaism from a centralized, hierarchical, sacrificial worship system into a portable, democratic, knowledge-based system that depended on teaching and learning and passing on that knowledge from generation to generation. (If you’re interested in learning more about this, please come to my session via Zoom at the Pittsburgh community’s Tikkun Leil Shavuot on Wednesday evening, 5/27.)

This is what these rabbis said in the 2nd century:

Pirqei Avot 6:4

כַּךְ הִיא דַּרְכָּהּ שֶׁל תּוֹרָה, פַּת בְּמֶלַח תֹּאכַל, וּמַיִם בִּמְשׂוּרָה תִשְׁתֶּה, וְעַל הָאָרֶץ תִּישַׁן, וְחַיֵּי צַעַר תִּחְיֶה, וּבַתּוֹרָה אַתָּה עָמֵל, אִם אַתָּה עֹשֶׂה כֵן, (תהלים קכח) אַשְׁרֶיךָ וְטוֹב לָךְ. אַשְׁרֶיךָ בָּעוֹלָם הַזֶּה וְטוֹב לָךְ לָעוֹלָם הַבָּא

Such is the way [of a life] of Torah: you shall eat bread with salt, and rationed water shall you drink; you shall sleep on the ground, your life will be one of privation, and in Torah shall you labor.

Pirqei Avot 6:5

[This mishnah identifies the forty-eight ways in which Torah is acquired]

בְּתַלְמוּד, בִּשְׁמִיעַת הָאֹזֶן, בַּעֲרִיכַת שְׂפָתַיִם, בְּבִינַת הַלֵּב, בְּשִׂכְלוּת הַלֵּב, בְּאֵימָה, בְּיִרְאָה, בַּעֲנָוָה, בְּשִׂמְחָה, בְּטָהֳרָה, בְּשִׁמּוּשׁ חֲכָמִים, בְּדִקְדּוּק חֲבֵרִים, וּבְפִלְפּוּל הַתַּלְמִידִים, בְּיִשּׁוּב, בַּמִּקְרָא, בַּמִּשְׁנָה, בְּמִעוּט סְחוֹרָה, בְּמִעוּט דֶּרֶךְ אֶרֶץ, בְּמִעוּט תַּעֲנוּג, בְּמִעוּט שֵׁינָה, בְּמִעוּט שִׂיחָה, בְּמִעוּט שְׂחוֹק, בְּאֶרֶךְ אַפַּיִם, בְּלֵב טוֹב, בֶּאֱמוּנַת חֲכָמִים, וּבְקַבָּלַת הַיִּסּוּרִין

… by study, attentive listening, proper speech, by an understanding heart, by an intelligent heart, by awe, by fear, by humility, by joy, by attending to the sages, by critical give and take with friends, by fine argumentation with disciples, by clear thinking, by study of Scripture, by study of mishnah, by a minimum of sleep, by a minimum of chatter, by a minimum of pleasure, By a minimum of frivolity, by a minimum of preoccupation with worldly matters, by long-suffering, by generosity, by faith in the sages, by acceptance of suffering…

[…and that’s only 24 of the 48!]

How do we learn Torah and apply it to our lives? Through serious, hard work and dedication, with a minimum of qalut rosh – lightness of the head. And why is this so important? So that we do not become numbers. So that we are names. We are people, with a history, and a past, and a nation, and a homeland, and a whole lot of ancient yearnings.

What is really of value? Not how many of us there are, but rather our stories, our laws, our values, our interpretations, yes, even our holy disagreements. Those are the things that make us human. Those are the things that make us Jewish.

Let the numbers be for the people who are interested in things.

We understand the value of people, of names, of stories, and in telling and re-telling our national saga. Forget the Romans; that is why we, the Jews, are still here. Torah has sustained us until this very moment. Torah gives our names meaning; Torah fills our lives with context and depth.

Numbers? No thanks. As a former engineer, I’ve had my fill of numbers. I’ll take the names instead.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 5/23/2020.)

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Sermons

The Value of Life and the Jewish Triangle – Bemidbar 5776

I was struck by a curious item in the news two weeks ago: the gorilla that was shot and killed at the Cincinnati Zoo. (In case you didn’t hear: a 3-year-old boy fell into the moat surrounding the gorilla pen; the silverback, a 17-year-old, 420-pound western lowlands gorilla named Harambe, while not attacking the boy, did drag him around the pen, injuring the boy seriously.)

There were vigils, criticism by various groups, defense of the killing by the zoo spokespeople, and plenty of news articles and opinion pieces for and against. Social media exploded.

I am not in a position to judge whether killing the gorilla was justified or not. The zoo’s “dangerous animal response team” made a quick decision, and they opted for shooting to kill over using a tranquilizer dart, to ensure that the child would survive.

Harambe’s cousins in Africa are critically endangered, and zoos like the one in Cincinnati have attempted to remediate this situation by breeding gorillas in captivity. It is certainly unfortunate that Harambe had to die because of this boy. There is no question that this was a hard decision for the zoo, and that their choice would be scrutinized and criticized. We will never know what would have happened had they gone with the tranquilizer dart, or some other solution.

WesternLowlandGorilla03.jpg
Western lowland gorilla

But what actually struck me about this story was its context in the news. Around the same time there was a shooting with multiple fatalities in a neighborhood in Houston where I used to live. It has also emerged in recent weeks that the homicide rates in both Chicago and Toronto are up by over 50% this year over last. And of course there is the ongoing terror activity in Israel, which claimed four more lives in Tel Aviv this week.

And those stories are dwarfed by the largest humanitarian catastrophe of the last few years – that is, the Syrian civil war. Estimates vary, but perhaps 400,000 people have been killed in Syria in the last five years. And we all know about the refugee crisis here and abroad, driven largely by displaced Syrians.

What emerges when you juxtapose the flap surrounding the gorilla with those other stories is this curious situation where people – actual people – are being killed and driven from their homes, and yet the reaction to Harambe’s death somehow floated to the top of the news, at least on Internet portals.

It is fascinating to me that have become so inured to daily killing and human suffering in our own contexts, outside of the tightly-controlled environment of the metropolitan zoo, in the wild streets of Chicago or Baltimore or even suburban St. Louis, that we seem to have lost a sense for the value of human life.

Of course, it’s hard to wrap our brains around the killing of many; it’s much easier to be outraged by the murder of a single, rare primate in a single, tragic situation.

But it’s worth noting that our tradition teaches us about both.

All lives – the lives of all creatures – are endowed with a spark of the Divine.

We learn from the Torah in multiple places, and it is expanded upon in the Talmud, that we are forbidden from causing animals unnecessary suffering. This principle is known as, “tza’ar ba’alei hayyim,” (and I learned this week that the SPCA in Israel is called, Agudat tza’ar ba’alei hayyim – the association of [fulfilling the mitzvah of preventing] cruelty to animals).

But qal vahomer / all the more so, human life too is sacred, and one of our duties here on Earth is to alleviate human suffering wherever we can. Lo ta’amod al dam re’ekha, says the Torah (Lev. 19:16). Do not stand idly by the blood of your fellow person. We have fundamental obligations to the people around us. And if Syria is too far away, we might consider just the people in our immediate environs.

Where, ladies and gentlemen, is the outcry? Where are the vigils for the victims of authoritarian regimes around the world? Where are the politicians calling for change on America’s streets? Where are the nations who are jumping over each other to take in those who have fled the Syrian chaos? Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany was the only head of state of the G-7 nations to attend the UN’s World Humanitarian Summit at the end of May, something which UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon went out of his way to point out.

And where, indeed, are the Jews, marching to help ensure that everybody gets a fair break in life, a decent education, neighborhoods free of the scourges of crime and drugs and guns?

***

We celebrate today with two young women who have stepped forward into direct relationship with the Torah and its framework of holiness. And not only that, but we continue our celebration of that framework tonight as we usher in the festival of Shavuot.

We call benei mitzvah to the Torah in the synagogue, surrounded not only by family and friends because we are making a public statement: this child is now one of us; she has inherited the mantle of Torah, the set of holy opportunities to fulfill our mitzvot. It is, by definition, a public display of the stepping up of this child.

The most fundamental statement of bar/bat mitzvah is communal; it is that this child is now one essential vertex in the triangle of individual, community, and Torah.

A sizeable chunk of that triangle is dedicated to the acknowledgement that this is an imperfect world, one which routinely tramples idealism and continues to thwart dreams, but that we have an obligation, as individuals and communities in sacred relationship with Torah, to right wrongs, to uplift the oppressed and give a hand to the needy. Lo alekha hammelakha ligmor, velo attah ben horin lehibbatel mimmena. It is not up to you to finish the task, neither may you give up on it (Pirqei Avot 2:21). That holy work is never done.

One neat trick of the Jewish calendar is that Parashat Bemidbar is always read adjacent to Shavuot, a reminder that the Torah was given and received in the desert. It was not given in Jerusalem, or even in Israel! The message is that the Torah does not belong to a particular place or even (!) a particular people. The Torah, and the holy opportunities it gives us, are for everybody.

As we prepare ourselves to celebrate Torah tonight on Shavuot, we should remember that our opportunities for holiness extend far beyond our interconnected Jewish circle here in Squirrel Hill, and much further beyond the Jewish world. The triangle that unites us with Torah demands that we seek justice for all of God’s creatures, as we said on Shabbat morning in the Prayer for Our Country, “lemiqtanam ve’ad gedolam,” from the least of them to the greatest (Jer. 31:33).

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 6/11/2016.)