Choice of words raises questions

Rabbi Roxanne J.S. Shapiro, RJE, serves as Rabbi and Director of Life Long Learning at United Hebrew Congregation.  She is the Treasurer of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association and the Chair of the St. Louis Education Directors’ Council. 

By Rabbi Roxanne J.S. Shapiro

In our Torah portion, B’midbar, we find the Children of Israel in the wilderness of Sinai. In fact, our Hebrew name for the portion has a different meaning than that of the English.  In Hebrew, B’midbar refers to the “Wilderness” (or desert), while our English name “Numbers” refers to the subject of the first command in our portion — to count the numbers of people. So, in the wilderness, the counting began and Moses and Aaron recorded all the men 20 years and older eligible to go forth into war. They also tallied up all the Levite males, age one month and up, who were dedicated to the sacred service.

This is a portion upon which, often times in d’vrei Torah or in sermons, it is touted how all of the people were counted and everyone mattered. Yet, the actual text only reports to us the counting of the men eligible for war and the Levites eligible for taking care of the Mishkan and the rituals and ritual items  involved. While it is a beautiful image, when reading the actual texts, that idealistic message crumbles.

At times of struggle with our text, I consider words found in the Mishkan T’filah [the Reform movement’s siddur] penned by Rabbi Richard Levy.  “…Its [Torah] mystery beckons, yet I struggle with its truth. You meant Torah for me: Did you mean the struggle for me, too?  And with these words, I recall that our people Israel received that name from our forefather Jacob who received the name after struggling with God. So, to wrestle with our text is a part of who we are as a people. We do not abandon, we engage in the toil to find understanding.

As we engage in the text, we find that our text does tell us that G-d commands Moses and Aaron by telling them to “Se’u” (a form of the imperative of the verb nun-sin-aleph) — to “lift up” the heads of the entire congregation of the Children of Israel. It is then specified that it is males who are to be counted. Yet, the verb “to lift up” is intriguing.  Why is it used here rather than to count? Ramban commented that this term could be used because it indicates the ability to rise to greatness. In lifting their head, one can assume a higher level.

Perhaps this higher level is achieved by seeing what is most important. At this time, in our Biblical text, knowing the numbers of those who could protect the Children of Israel and knowing the numbers of those who could carry for the most holy items was essential. They were not excluding or not noticing, but rather lifting up that which was crucial for their time.

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And for today, what would G-d ask us to lift up to be counted? What do we raise up to reach higher levels? Whom would we ask to lift up their heads in order to count in a census? It is my vision that we would ask our entire community to lift their heads — from every category, with every struggle, with every blessing. In the lifting of our own heads to be counted, I pray that we would be able to see and count everyone, including those who may be too caught up in a “wilderness” to lift their own.