BaMidbar- weekly Torah portion

The root Pe.Kof.Dalet. (פ.ק.ד.) is used in this week’s portion of the Torah, that opens the book of numbers, in two different meanings. In one we read about the census where the people of Israel are counted and the number amounts to a total six hundred and three thousand and five hundred and fifty. It is a number that excludes the Levites who are not to be counted. However, the root of Pe.Kof.Dalet. is still used in the context of the tribe of Levy although it appears in a different meaning. We read, “But you shall appoint the Levites over the tabernacle of the testimony, and over all its furnishings and over all that belongs to it. They shall carry the tabernacle and all its furnishings, and they shall take care of it; they shall also camp around the tabernacle.” The Levites are not part of the census, that is they are not counted, however they are accountable to all that happens in the Mishkan which means they have to know what is in there, or in other words, count what it there and make sure it is there.

The Numbering of the Israelites, engraving by Henri Félix Emmanuel Philippoteaux (1815–1884)

It may seem odd not to have the Levites counted, those who are made responsible for the most treasured possession of the People. In some sense it does make sense because the census also has to do with the taxation and there is no point to tax those who do not have from what to pay and in any case it would go back to them as the benefiters of the taxes and donations collected. So there is not much point of having this circular taxation system. However, it seems that not counting the Levites has a deeper message to them, a message that leaves the wilderness and sinks into the People. All those who serve as public servants on behalf of the People are not counted so that none feels more important than the People they are there to serve. It is important to count and give a face to those who are not close to the throne, the leadership and to power, so that those who are will know who counts. It is therefore that one needs to go back to the desert and listen carefully to the voices that come out from what is seemingly a big void.

This coming Sunday we shall be celebrating the Festival of Weeks, Shavouth. In Deuteronomy we read, “you shall celebrate the Feast of Weeks to the Lord your God with a tribute of a freewill offering of your hand, which you shall give just as the Lord your God blesses you; and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God, you and your son and your daughter and your male and female servants and the Levite who is in your town, and the stranger and the orphan and the widow who are in your midst, in the place where the Lord your God chooses to establish His name.” When we read about the census in this week’s portion of BaMidbar, we find that it is exclusive to “every male, head by head from twenty years old and upward, whoever is able to go out to war in Israel”. There is no rejoicing about this, it is a technicality, a count of a certain group. Today we would most likely opt for a different inclusion in our counting. However, when it is time to celebrate, it is not the counting that counts but rather the inclusion of everyone that matters. Every one counts and if they do not the festival cannot be celebrated. Everyone should be included even if they are not included in the census, male and female, slaves, the Levites, and also the weakest of the weakest of society, the widow, the orphan and the stranger, those to whom our backs can be so easily and carelessly be turned to.

The mission of inclusion is upon all of us but in particular it is the role of the leadership and the state. Therefore the message to the leadership, those who are to serve the public, is that they are not entitled to everything they receive, they are going to be held accountable and be responsible in regards of the task that they have been tasked with. This is a very important message now that the recommendation about the conversion law in Israel are to be presented by the former minister Moshe Nissim to the government of Israel. Some of his recommendations are good, others are worthy of discussion, debate and clarification. It is especially encouraging to learn of this recommendation that the State of Israel recognize all of the non-orthodox conversions that took place in Israel until now and also all conversion of any Jewish congregation from any stream outside of Israel also going forward. We do believe that there is a place in Israel for more than one way of being Jewish and becoming a Jew and that can be safely contained in our society, so that all Jews can be counted in the census. In that respect there is much to be learned from the book of Ruth that we will be reading, more carefully than ever before, this Shavouth. From time to time we ought to walk into the wilderness with all of these teachings, listen to the silence, contemplate, think and then learning how to count Jews from all walks of life, coming from the big streams the feed the desert, that are reach and diverse, interesting, debating and arguing. And all will be accounted for in the large census of the Jewish Peoplehood.

Shabbat Shalom and wishes for happy Shavouth.

Reuven Marko, 18 may 2018, 5 Sivan, 5778

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