Posted on June 5, 2020 by Rabbi Arnie Gluck
This week’s Torah reading, parshat Naso, continues the census of the Israelites that gives the Book of Numbers its English name. The act of counting described here is significant and relevant to us as modern readers of the Torah. First, as is the case with the census currently being conducted by the United States government, the act of counting, of taking note of and accounting for each individual, is a powerful values statement.
We count that which is precious to us and by doing so in a way that seeks exact numbers instead of estimates or round numbers, it says that each and every individual counts – that they matter.
We are living in a moment when that value is being sorely challenged. Clearly, though the founding documents of our nation declare that “all men are created equal,” in practice our nation has always acted as if this is not the case. As George Orwell suggested, some are indeed more equal than others.
It is less than a hundred years since women were granted the right to vote in America, and the passage of those nearly one hundred years has not eradicated other forms of discrimination against them, notably equal pay for equal work, and the right to exercise full autonomy over their bodies. LGBTQ citizens are still not treated equally in many ways, despite a growing awareness of the grave injustice of discriminating against them. And, as we are reminded constantly and most pointedly in the midst of this crisis, people of color are treated as less than in so many ways, including access to healthcare, employment, equal protection – and justice – under the law, quality of education, and on and on.
George Floyd had the life crushed out of him by the knee of a racist police officer, but he and so many other people of color are systematically crushed under the weight of bigotry and oppression that make it a risky business just to live and breathe.
Americans are reacting with outrage and disgust to the brutal murder of George Floyd, as we should. Were it not for the coronavirus pandemic, I would urge us all to take to the streets in peaceful protest. But demonstrations are not safe now, nor are they enough. They were never enough, not in 1964 and not now. They are not enough because, despite landmark civil rights legislation passed in 1964 and in 1968, racism is as pervasive in America today as it ever was.
What is needed to right these persistent wrongs is a systematic redress of cumulative injustices. And it must begin with a national atonement – the kind of atonement that is expressed in more than just words, but also in tangible offerings that will bring about a transformation of our society – what my friend Rev. Charles Boyer has called a “Black New Deal.” Every citizen in America will only really count when our society provides equal opportunity, equal justice, and equal dignity to all.
The second aspect of the counting in Naso that speaks to us at this moment is the expression the Torah uses in calling for a census. “Naso et rosh,” literally means, “lift up the head.” What a beautiful metaphor, and what a powerful statement this makes about the act of relating to and counting the members of a community or a nation. For when you lift up the head of another person it makes it possible to see their face – to see each other eye to eye, revealing our common humanity. .
It is a beginning. The tender act of lifting the head of a fellow human being is significant, but it is insufficient if it is all we do. When we see that another person is downcast or downtrodden, we should begin by lifting their heads and then go on to lift up their bodies and help them stand erect.
The Torah has a word for this uplifting: kommemiyut. It comes from the Hebrew root, kum, which means to rise, and it is used to describe the restoration of our people after destruction and exile. The homecoming of the Jewish people to eretz yisrael, and the founding of the State of Israel are the modern day kommemiyut of am yisrael, the Jewish people. As Jews we know that our existential reality as citizens of the world was transformed from one of total victimization in the Holocaust to one of freedom, independence, and dignity by our people’s return to national sovereignty – by our kommemiyut.
Black and brown people in America must achieve kommemiyut. They must be free to live with full dignity and equality and share in the fullness of the promise of freedom in America. Only then will our nation live up to its vision and its creed.
This Sunday at 3 p.m. Temple Beth-El will be joining in a Virtual Vigil for Justice and Peace in Memory of George Floyd. This, too, is only a beginning, a first step on the long road to building a just society in which every citizen enjoys full equality, dignity and opportunity.
Advance registration is required via this link: www.tinyurl.com/VirtualVigil2020 or click on the flyer below.
I wish you a peaceful, restful and joyful Shabbat.
Rabbi Arnie Gluck