A D'Var Torah for Shavuot

Rabbi David Straus is spiritual leader of Main Line Reform Temple Beth Elohim in Wynnewood, PA and a member of the JSPAN Board. And on the day on which you bring the sheaf of elevation offering—the day after the Sabbath—you shall count off seven weeks. They must be complete: you must count until the day after the seventh week—fifty days; then you shall bring an offering of new grain to God. (Lev. 23:15-16) Take a census of the whole Israelite company by the clans of its ancestral houses, listing the names, every male, head by head. (Numbers 1:2) Counting is very much on the mind of the Jewish people at this time of year. It is the theme of the Torah portions at the beginning of the Book of Numbers, which we began this past Shabbat. (The very title of this fourth book of the Torah, Numbers, makes this obvious, though the Hebrew title, Bamidbar, In the Wilderness is far more descriptive of this book- but that is for another D’var Torah.) Why would the Torah spend any time teaching us about counting? What ethical lessons are we to learn from these passages? And how might they inform how we are to live our lives today? Let’s begin briefly with the second text, taken from the opening verses of Numbers. The Israelites have been encamped around Mt. Sinai for more than 2 years. Soon, they will leave Sinai, and begin their journey to the Promised Land. They will need to conquer the land, and need to know how many men over the age of 20 they have to form a fighting army. This is the nominal reason for taking a census at this time. But what strange language the Torah uses in instructing us to number the people. The language of the Torah is not “count” but rather “lift up high the heads of the people.” And why are we told to list each name? What is the Torah trying to teach us about counting? Our tradition, for lots of reasons, has always been at best ambivalent about counting, especially when it comes to people. Why? Because counting objectifies individuals; it reduces us to a thing, an object, a number. Counting takes away our individuality, and in a profound way, our personhood. We Jews know what it means to be reduced to a number (think of the concentration camp, where one of the first things the Nazis did, in an attempt to reduce human beings to objects, was to take away the inmates' names, and literally inscribe them with a number; think in our own days what we do to prisoners.) Now, the Torah recognizes that there is a certain necessity in knowing how many people one has to field an army. Yet, perhaps the strange language the Torah uses (literally), “lift up high the heads….listing each name” reflects our ambivalence about counting people. Only God counts souls. Some of you may be familiar with the traditional practice of counting a minyan, “not one, not two, etc.” or using a Biblical verse as a mnemonic for counting those present. What does this say to us as members of JSPAN? It is a reminder of the holy work we do- learning to remember that we are not fighting for a cause or an issue alone; we are fighting and protecting the rights of individuals, human beings created in the image of God. And when it comes to fighting for the rights of those most vulnerable in our society, as we spend much of our time doing, we too need to remember that we are fighting for individuals- each with his or her own hopes, dreams, fears, personalities and most important of all, stories. Finally, a word about our first text. The first text teaches us about the counting of the Omer, a 50 day period that begins on the eve of the second night of Pesah, and ends on the eve of Shavuot. I want to focus on the peculiar way we count the Omer. In our secular society, we tend to count down. Think of -- so many days left ‘til Christmas; so many days left ‘til my birthday. But sefirot Ha’omer, the counting of the Omer is different. We count up, that is, today is the first day, second day, etc. Why? To remind us that all of our actions together, add up, if you will; that our working together helps bring our world one moment closer to redemption. In Pirke Avot we are taught, “It is not up to you to finish the task, nor may you desist from it.” So may we continue to work together to bring our world closer to that day we dream of.