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Numbers 1:1 – 4:20

Having meditated throughout the Book of Leviticus on the mitzvot we must perform to ensure that the Holy One dwells among us, we now resume the story of our ancestors in the ancient wilderness, starting where we left off at the end of the Book of Exodus. The Book of Numbers opens with Parashat B’midbar, in which the Eternal One “spoke to Moses” a month after the dedication of the Tabernacle, saying, “Take a census of the whole Israelite company…” (Numbers 1:1).

As we take stock of the Jewish “company” in the 21st Century, it’s no big secret that our Tribe is deeply divided. The frequent conflicts between Israel and Palestine, for example, continue to divide our people. We have been at great odds with each other for many generations, not only politically or in our views on Israel, but in our harsh judgments about each other’s practice and interpretation of Judaism. Those in the liberal camp are accused of complicity in the growing number of intermarriages, which raises the specter of our disappearance as a people, while those in the orthodox camp are decried as anachronistic patriarchs stuck in an irrelevant isolationist past, thereby raising the same specter. The list of grievances goes on from all sides of the divide. Ultimately, everyone believes that their way of practicing Judaism is the only correct, relevant, and authentic way.

Where will this divisiveness lead us? The Talmud offers one particularly dark possibility: “Why…was the second Temple—wherein the society was involved in Torah, Commandments and acts of kindness—destroyed? Because gratuitous hatred was rampant in society” (Yoma 9b). In our generation we certainly are not at this level of contention; the House of Jacob is not on the brink of collapse. We may be displeased or uncomfortable with the ways others choose to practice Judaism, but that is a far cry from hatred. Perhaps we have the opportunity to offer an alternate ending to that of the Talmud; we can seed a different vision for the unfolding of the Jewish story, based on the profound teaching of this week’s Torah portion.

In this account of that first census, every tribe is accounted for, each one given a place in the composition of the community as it is about to march through the wilderness. The metaphor of the wilderness is itself most telling. Here is a space welcoming of all and belonging to no one. The marching tribes of our ancestors presage the way in which the multiple denominations of modern Judaism, as well as nondenominational congregations and individual Jews, are all wandering through the midbar together. If we are to heed what this parashah may be telling us, not only do we all, affiliated or not, need to be counted as part of the “Israelite community”; we all need the unique space we take in the arrangement of the tribes—in the breadth of Judaism—to be recognized and affirmed by all others as we march through the midbar as one people.

Trouble begins when we believe that we own The Truth. No one does. Rather, each of our denominations expresses a whole but partial truth. By “whole” I mean that, deeply grounded in our convictions and steeped in our unique practices and worldview, we hold an absolutely valid and necessary form of Jewish expression, a whole truth. But our truth is also part of a greater whole, the whole we call Judaism. And therefore, it is a partial truth on the spectrum of truths that make up Judaism. This is why I believe all Jewish denominations and all unaffiliated Jews are needed for the health of the entire Am Yisrael.

The Hebrew words usually translated as “take a census,” s’oo et-rosh, literally mean “lift the head.” By accounting for the entire range of denominations, by counting all of us as integral whole-parts of the modern Israelite community, we restore to all Jews a sense of belonging and a reason to hold our heads up high. As we wander through the wilderness, each other’s presence enhances the remarkable experience of being Jewish. May we find within our hearts the gratuitous love that will unite our people in the essential acceptance of our differences, both here in America and—most critically in our time—in the land of Israel.

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