Parasha Naso: Counting on Us

Last Saturday night, we gathered in the library for our Tikun Lel Shavuot study. Rabbi Edward Friedman of Temple Bnai Israel, and Rabbi Steven Peskind of Elgin joined me and CBS member Anna Lelko and 16 others for a night of study. The practice of studying the entire night of Shavuot is based on a kabbalistic tradition. The Torah notes that Moses gave the people of Israel three days’ notice that G-d would come down Mt. Sinai, in the sight of all the people. In preparation, Moses instructs the people to prepare themselves. They are not to lay even a hand on Mt. Sinai, they are to wash their clothing, bathe, and refrain from intimate relations — all in preparation for the big day which is  G-d’s debut! You would expect everyone to be afire with excitement. I mean, think of the journalists and “royal watchers”  lining up in front of St. Mary’s Hospital in London in anticipation of the birth of William and Kate’s third child. Some of them had been in line for two weeks! They brought blankets to wrap themselves in and cushions to sleep on just to have a front row seat when William and Kate emerged from the hospital with their newborn in their arms. One would think that an extended appearance by G-d would call for endless lines to form early at Mt. Sinai. One would think that crowd control would be a major issue. Yet, according to the midrash, when Israel was about to receive the Torah on Shavuot morning, everyone was still sleeping! G-d had to wake everyone up with lightning and thunder. Moses, says the Midrash, had to rouse people to the meeting with the Supreme Being. Therefore, in order to make amends for our ancestors, who overslept that morning, we study all night, in order to show our enthusiasm and eagerness for accepting the Torah.

And at Congregation Beth Shalom we indeed showed our enthusiasm. Rabbi Friedman shared a provocative poem by Israeli poet Yehudah Amichai entitled “My Father was G-d”.  Our fellow congregant Anna talked about four Jewish authors who have had an enormous impact on her life. She also led us in a brief meditation. I shared a short story by Israeli scholar Anna Calderon based on a story in the Talmud. Dr. Calderon brings these ancient stories alive for the modern reader, and in doing so elicits meanings that are latent in the Talmudic texts. She shows how a Talmudic story about a young teacher who is able to bring rain in a period of drought contains an implicit critique of the traditional power structure in the Jewish community. The story also presents an alternative definition of masculinity. We will study another of her stories tomorrow morning at 9:00 am in our library. Rabbi Peskind taught us about the conception of G-d held by the rabbis of the Talmud, an understanding of the nature of G-d which might be surprising to the modern Jew.

This brings us to the Book of Numbers. It begins by telling us that on the first day of the second month in the second year after the exodus from Egypt, G-d commanded that Moses make a census of the Israelites. The careful reader will discover that back in the book Exodus G-d asks Moses to take a census only a month before, the day the Tabernacle is erected. Why back to back censuses only a month apart? Furthermore, there are two other times when G-d counts the Jewish people — the first immediately after they leave Egypt, again after the incident of the Golden Calf — Four times in one year!

Many of us have been taught the “Three Oes” about G-d — G-d is Omnipotent, [all powerful] Omnipresent, [always there] and Omniscient [all-knowing]. We might ask, “If G-d is Omniscient, why the need for the counting at all?” Doesn’t G-d know, without counting? Rashi explains that G-d counts the Jewish people all the time, not because He needs to, but because He likes to, because we are all precious to Him.

This interpretation of Rashi’s counteracts our tendency to think that G-d is so concerned with the big picture, the larger sweep of human history, that G-d loses sight of us as individuals. We may need G-d, but does G-d need us? Who am I to be considered by G-d? What do I matter? Why should G-d take notice of my insignificant life?

That question reminds me of the story about a crowd of people who have gathered on a hill by the sea to watch a great ship pass by. A young child is waving vigorously. One of the men in the crowd asks him why. He says, “I am waving so the captain of the ship can see me and wave back.” “But,” said the man, “the ship is far away, and there is a crowd of us here. What makes you think that the captain can see you?” “Because,” said the boy, “the captain of the ship is my father. He will be looking for me among the crowd.”

Judaism teaches that the relationship between G-d and the individual is a reciprocal one. If the captain of the ship does not see his child waving in the crowd, he will miss him. None of us is just a face in the crowd to G-d. The Talmud teaches that when a person goes regularly to synagogue, and then does not come for one day, the Blessed Holy One makes inquiries about them. That is what it means when it says, “May G-d bless you, be gracious to you, shine G-d’s light upon you and smile upon you”, the priestly benediction that appears in this week’s parasha. It means that G-d takes notice of us. That G-d cares.

Shabbat Shalom