"The Numbering of the Israelites," engraving by Henri Félix Emmanuel Philippoteaux, mid-19th century
"The Numbering of the Israelites," engraving by Henri Félix Emmanuel Philippoteaux, mid-19th century

Count us in: Jews must stand up with pride


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Bamidbar

Numbers 1:1-4:20


After the narrative detour of the Book of Leviticus, the Torah returns to the odyssey of the Israelites in Bamidbar (in English, “In the Wilderness”). In the fourth book of the Torah, known as Numbers for the census with which it begins, God commands Moses to summon the 12 clans and count the number of adult men they can offer for the coming battles. It’s an impressive sight to imagine, as the tribal heads tally up their ranks and take their places around the Tent of Meeting — an army of God with God’s dwelling place in the center.

Jewish ambivalence toward counting people is long attested. In an earlier census, the people each give a half-shekel to indicate their numbers, but the gifts are for atonement and building the sacred precinct, so that “there will be no plague among them when they are counted” (Exodus 30:13). In later times, a terrible plague does decimate the Israelites when King David counts the people directly (II Samuel 24). Some claim that counting people incurs jealousy and invites the evil eye to visit; others insist the Jewish people shouldn’t need to be counted if they behave as one unified body, and that only when they are individuated does community collapse and fragmentation occur (Sefer Panim Yafot, 19th century).

Jews often avoid counting people directly, including the traditional “not-one, not-two,” technique, and using a 10-word scriptural verse to count a minyan. But counting is a way to check in, to ensure that as many as possible are present and accounted for, to ascertain that we are still a recognizable and sizable enough group to actually count for something in this world.

There’s something wonderful about the way the phrase “take a census” appears in Hebrew. It’s “s’u et rosh” — literally, “raise the head” (of each member of the House of Israel). It suggests standing up tall to be seen and counted. It conveys a posture of pride and taking ownership of one’s place in the ranks. That 10-word scriptural verse embodies that concept, as it says, “Save Your people and bless Your inheritance, and tend them and lift them up forever” (Psalms 28:9).

In 2020, the American people will undergo the constitutionally mandated, every-10-year census. It has enormous implications — for determining how many congressional seats each state keeps as well as where billions of federal dollars are spent: on medical programs, the national school lunch program, housing vouchers, Head Start, highway construction and myriad other allocations. The information is also used to redraw congressional and state legislative district boundaries.

It would be lovely to think that all people in this land would want to be counted. As of today, the country awaits a decision from the Supreme Court on whether next year’s census will include the question, “Is this person a citizen of the United States?” It’s a question that hasn’t been asked on the census in decades, and which, if non-citizens opt out of participation because of it, could result in an undercount of up to 6.5 million human beings currently residing here (a number provided by the Census Bureau itself). This would have a direct impact in states like our own, where large numbers of non-citizens dwell, and whose representation in government, and receipt of sorely-needed government funds, could be quickly curtailed. Extremely complex questions of immigration and naturalization policies are beyond the scope of this drash, but issues like this one point to the necessity of coming to a compromise and consensus without delay.

Jews know this story well. Even where we have been fully emancipated citizens, we have been asked to rank our loyalties to Judaism and to our countries of residence, to wonder how much we can or even should “raise our heads” to be counted. In 1807, Napoleon convened a Council of Notables as part of a longer-range plan to completely assimilate the Jews of France. He asked them a series of questions, including: “Do the Jews who are born in France, and have been granted citizenship by the laws of France, truly acknowledge France as their country? Are they bound to defend it, to follow its laws, to follow the directions of the civil and court authorities of France?” That suspicion still survives, where some current members of the U.S. Congress have opined recently on where the “true loyalty” of American Jews lies.

This weekend ends the period of the Counting of the Omer, and begins the holiday of Shavuot. For seven weeks, we’ve been numbering the days until the commemoration of the Giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. We’ll read the Book of Ruth, in which we find perhaps the most moving depiction ever offered of a person who was on the “outside,” but who stood up and said “whither thou goest, I will go.” That kind of willingness — to hold one’s head up and be fully a part of a chosen community — is the kind of commitment and intention our census should celebrate. It’s the way we all hope to stand among the House of Israel, and in whatever country we find ourselves, and say “count me in.”

Shabbat Shalom and chag sameach.

Rabbi Shana Chandler Leon
Rabbi Shana Chandler Leon

Rabbi Shana Chandler Leon is rabbi of Congregation Ner Tamid in the Sunset District of San Francisco, her hometown. She is a graduate of the Academy for Jewish Religion California and a member of Rabbis Without Borders. She can be reached at rabbishanachandlerleon@gmail.com.