Posted on June 2, 2023 by Rabbi Arnie Gluck
Our Torah portion, Naso, begins with a census, continuing the counting of the Israelites and the Levites that began in last week’s parashah, B’midbar.
The language used to describe the task is noteworthy. “naso et rosh b’nai Gershon,” translates literally to, “lift up the head of the children of Gershon.” The original intent was clearly to call for a “head count,” but there is also a more powerful and profound message here.
The task of counting people can be dehumanizing. It can turn people into numbers or statistics, into objects to be categorized or compartmentalized.
“Lift up the head,” however, suggests a loving and benevolent act. Lifting up the head enables us to see the face of the one who is before us so we can behold it in all its humanity. It aligns faces so eyes can be joined, and each can affirm the presence of the other. As Martin Buber taught, at such a moment we enter into a relationship that transforms the other from an “it” to a “you,” from an object to a person. We see and are seen for what we truly are, unique and precious souls of infinite value, deserving of dignity and honor.
As we prepare to observe Memorial Day, this lesson is of particular significance. War is arguably the most dehumanizing of endeavors. Impelled by differing ideologies, combatants shoot and kill people whose names they do not know, whose faces they do not see, and who have been objectified as “the enemy.”
To their comrades in arms, they were brothers and sisters. But to the command structure, they are numbers and statistics, pawns in a high stakes tactical game. The dead easily become abstractions – one among many who have paid the ultimate price for whatever cause is at stake.
I am reminded of this every time I visit a military cemetery and see the neatly aligned rows of identical little headstones. They are all the same; all blending into the landscape unless one draws near to focus on the names chiseled into the shiny white marble.
Up close we can see that each one is a precious individual, unique and irreplaceable – someone’s son or daughter, husband, wife, brother, sister, father, friend… a whole world in a microcosm.
This is the lesson I urge us to draw from Naso on this Shabbat of Memorial Day weekend. Let us make our accounting of those around us, those who serve us, and those who live with us, be an uplifting of the head so we can see and affirm the personhood of each one we encounter. Let us see each other’s faces and affirm each other’s unique and precious countenance. Let us never allow ourselves to think of human beings as abstractions, especially those who have given their lives for our country.
As a nation we can and should do more to lift up the heads of our fellow citizens and neighbors, especially those who are downcast; the poor, the weak, communities of color, LGBTQ+ people, and all who are treated as less than, so we can see each other’s faces and see beyond the surface of our differences to our shared humanity. We need to see each other as Moses saw God, panim el panim, face to face. We need to align our faces to see and be seen. If we do, we have reason to hope that we will begin to treat each other with more kindness, justice, and love, and then we will all be uplifted.
Rabbi Arnie Gluck
Editor’s Note: Due to the celebration of Shavuot last Friday, we did not distribute this message for Parshat Naso; it was delivered from the bimah instead. Since we read Naso again this week (to remain in sync with those who observe two days of the Festivals), and due to the importance of this message, we are sharing it with you now. Please forgive the time inconsistencies.