Parashat Ki Tissa: Lift Up the Head to See and Be Seen

Posted on March 1, 2024 by Rabbi Arnie Gluck

This week’s Torah portion, Ki Tissa, begins with instructions for how to take a census of the Israelite community. Ki Tissa means “when you count”; the literal translation is “when you lift up [the heads of…].” This is an interesting locution that is similar to our English idiom of taking a head count, but with one significant difference.

Census-taking can be an impersonal act, one that all too easily turns people into numbers and statistics that reduce them to objects to be administered. Counting human beings can be a dehumanizing enterprise. We see this with the counting of casualties of war or other tragic events. Half a million Ukrainians killed. 1,200 Israelis murdered on October 7. 58 people gunned down in Las Vegas in 2017. More than 1 million lost to Covid.

It is easy to lose sight of the fact that each one of these people had a name and a face, a life and a story. Each one was someone’s child, someone’s beloved, someone’s friend. Each one had value that cannot be quantified or reduced to a number.

Herein lies the significance of the locution “ki tissa et rosh, when you lift up the head,” for when counting this way, the face of the individual is seen and their humanity revealed.

In her important new book, The Amen Effect, Rabbi Sharon Brous describes an ancient Jewish ritual that was carefully choreographed to “lift up the heads” and reveal the faces of the participants.

This ritual was performed three times a year when our ancestors arrived en masse at the Great Temple for the Pilgrimage Festivals. The pilgrims would ascend the steps, enter the enormous plaza, and begin circling counterclockwise around the complex until they completed the circumference and exited near where they had entered.

At the same time, those among the pilgrims who had experienced hardship, illness, or tragedy would enter the same plaza and begin to circle clockwise — in the opposite direction — so that the people in each group would encounter one another face to face. And each person who passed one of the brokenhearted would stop and ask, “Ma lach? What happened to you?” The afflicted would then share their story and their fellow pilgrim would console them with the words, “ha-Makom y’na-cheim etchem, May God comfort you.”

As Rabbi Brous describes it, “the Rabbis constructed a system of ritual engagement built on a profound psychological insight: when you are suffering…when all you want is to self-isolate you step into community….” You show up and others show up for you in a scene and setting that is constructed with one essential purpose in mind: to make sure that those who are suffering are seen, acknowledged, affirmed, and comforted.

If only we could reconstruct this sacred circle in which the anonymity of pain that is so pervasive in our time would be replaced by the warm embrace of humanity that begins when we see each other and care for one another. Oh, but we can! It is exactly what the synagogue was intended to be and what its promise and possibility still is — if only we show up. That’s how it begins. By showing up and lifting our heads to see one another.

The Torah describes how after years of estrangement Jacob reunited and reconciled with his brother Esau. Tenderly, as they embraced, Jacob looked upon Esau and said to him, “to see your face is to see the face of God.”

The image of God is reflected in every human face. We have only to look — to lift the heads of our fellow human beings — to see their faces and affirm their humanity, their suffering, and their joy. In so doing, we all are uplifted and redeemed.

Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Arnie Gluck