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Torah Commentary
B'midbar (May 26, 2012)

Rabbi Amy B. Ehrlich

IT’S NOT AN EXAGGERATION to say that we are at a critical time in history: American history, world history and Jewish history when we must assess who we are, what we stand for and with whom we stand. If we are to move forward in a meaningful way, then we must know ourselves.

How do we come to know ourselves? The ancients did it by taking a census. Thus, the Book of Numbers begins with a count, an assessment of all those who had trekked from Egypt and would move into the Promised Land. Because of the unknown factors that awaited them — that is, whether the land would be open and easily settled or whether it might require the organized strength of an army — the census was necessary to provide a picture of the assembled community. Assessing just how many were available to bear arms was its purpose. All men over the age of 20 were counted in its rolls.

Having read this passage over many years, it seems logical but unremarkable. But in the last few weeks, I was reminded that is not so. I recently had the pleasure of discussing this portion with a young woman who was preparing to become a bat mitzvah. She reminded me that the census was flawed because if the ancients wanted to really see who was in their community, then they needed to include women and children as well as those men who were overlooked because they could not bear arms. To this young woman of 13, that the biblical census was conducted in this way was shocking. Although we discussed how the Bible captured a certain time and a context, that it was a window onto an ancient worldview which underlies our own faith today, she would not be appeased. I had to admit that I was a little pleased by her response.

In this land of opportunity and equality, she was born into a time when girls and boys, women and men might see themselves as peers. It is worth remembering that what is taken for granted by children today is still innovative for those of us even a generation older. Her comment reminded me that when I was her age — not so long ago — there were no female rabbis. How the world has changed!

While we tend to mark the round numbers of significant events with special fanfare, some anniversaries should be celebrated every day. Was it only two generations ago that our nation counted the landmark decision known as Brown v. Board of Education? I invite you to recall what America was like before that decision. From transportation to theaters to schools, there was intentionally no interaction across color lines in the day-to-day world. Try to explain that to a 13-year-old today. That a Negro could be a physician defied our understanding; yet today the highest office in the land is accessible to all.

We know from history that the Declaration of Independence had one meaning for the writers and another for their slaves. It took 200 years to make those words a reality for people of color.

Brown v. Board of Education changed everything. It began with the law, and as our actions changed, real exchange, understanding and friendships emerged. Without that judicious ruling we still would be flying under the myth that separate was equal — when we all knew it was not and honestly could never be. It brought us to see that the reality, the status quo, was unjust, unfair and truly unkind. Must we anticipate another two generations before we can realize that all people, no matter how they express themselves, possess inalienable rights?

Ultimately we return to the question asked by that same bat mitzvah student, but it is a question that reaches into each and every heart: “Who counts…?” When we are ready to answer that — to stand up for every person, regardless of how similar they are to us — the prophetic vision will be realized along with the American dream.

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