Some People Count, Some People Don’t

This Week’s Sermon on parashat Bamidbar. Cross-posed to the This Is What a Rabbi Looks Like.

“Some people count, some people don’t.”

It’s a line only a movie villain could say, in this case, the womanizing waiter in the movie Dirty Dancing (a television remake aired this past Wednesday, so I had to sneak that in there).

But these words might have very well been spoken by God and Moses, as we begin reading the book of Numbers. In Hebrew, this book is called Bamidbar, “in the wilderness,” because of where the events of the book take place. However, the English name, Numbers, is pretty spot on. The first commandment we receive in this book is, “Take a census of the whole Israelite community by the clans of its ancestral houses, listing the names, every male, head by head. You and Aaron shall record them by their groups, from the age of twenty years up, all those in Israel who are able to bear arms” (Numbers 1:2).

The Israelites do what God commands, reaching a total of 603,550.  Though some call this figure “impossibly large,” it is still only a sliver of the Israelite community (Etz Chayim 773). In this census, some people count, and some people don’t. The distinction reveals a great deal about the priorities of the community. At this moment, when the Israelites are preparing for military action, it makes sense that the only people they care to count are men who can serve in the army. This census excludes women, children, and the disabled. It also excludes the Levites, the caretakers of the temple, who, though essential to the Israelite community, do not fight in the military. This particular exclusion makes it clear that not counting doesn’t mean you aren’t important (check out the triple negative!), but rather that you aren’t a necessary player in this particular mission.

Some people count, and some people don’t.

Nowadays, congregations have different ways of counting people. I recently learned that churches measure their congregations by ASA—“Average Sabbath Attendance.” By this metric, we are growing, so I happen to like it better. But it is interesting to put the two metrics side-by-side: do we count the membership of our congregation by who fills out a form or writes a check, or by who comes through the door and takes part in the life of the synagogue? For a house of worship to thrive, both metrics matter.

But more than the numbers themselves, what matters is whether or not people feel that they “count” as a part of our community.

This past week, I read a children’s book called Almost a Minyan. Someone had referred to the book as “groundbreaking,” and I wanted to see why. The story is about a girl anticipating the day that she can count in a minyan, one of the ten adults—traditionally men—needed to say Kaddish in the synagogue. At first, I was offended that anyone would think of it as “groundbreaking” to have a young woman “count” in a minyan, or to wear tallit and tefillin, as this young woman does in the illustrations. Women counting in the synagogue? That was sooooo 100 years ago!

But two things made this book special. The first was that there was no dramatic tension about the young woman counting in the minyan—the drama of the story came from someplace else. No one was against it. It was just a matter of her reaching the appropriate age. Once she turned twelve, wasn’t any question of whether or not she “counted.”

Moreover, the faces in the book represented different races and genders, though none of this was mentioned or explained in the text. This might not seem that groundbreaking to us—we have all kinds of people here in our synagogue. But imagine that you are a young woman, or a person of color, in a Jewish community where there aren’t many people who look like you. Seeing a face like yours, or a story like yours, on the page, reminds you (or maybe tells you for the first time) that you matter. You count.

We have come quite a far way from counting only adult, combat-ready males in the Jewish community. We give equal weight to men and women, to the disabled and the abled, to adults and to children, even if certain privileges only come with b’nai mitzvah. In the Reform movement, we have taken extra steps to make sure that individuals, and households, are counted equally, regardless of their size, shape, color, ability, economic status, or orientation.

This is the ideal, but there are times when we fall short. Each of us has probably known a time when we didn’t feel “counted” in a community: when our voice was not heard, or our needs were not met, or we did not feel welcomed because we were different in some way. It is our responsibility as a sacred community to consider who might still be outside our doors, because they don’t feel that they “count” here, and how we can communicate to every person in our community that they matter.

Some people count, and some people don’t.

We are also seeing this phrase play out on the national scale. We have our own census coming up in 2020, and there is a debate over who will be counted. While the 1990 census was the first to count same-sex couples, the 2020 census was going to be the first to include questions about LGBTQ individuals. But the Census Bureau revealed a few weeks ago that these questions would not be included in this census.

Why does this matter? It matters to researchers and agencies who serve these populations, so that they can have the best information about the people living in any given community, and address the particular challenges that each community might face. And it matters to LGBTQ individuals, who view this as an attempt to “erase” them. They want to know that they “count.”

This past week, the White House released a budget proposal for next year that has raised further questions about who “counts” in our society. The proposal suggests making cuts to programs that serve children, the poor, and the disabled. The White House Budget Director, Mick Mulvaney, urged the public not to focus solely on the numbers:

“We are no longer going to measure compassion by the number of programs or the number of people on those programs. We are going to measure compassion and success by the number of people we help get off those programs and get back in charge of their own lives.”

This is an admirable goal. There is no higher form of tzedaka than empowering a person to become self-sufficient. But we must ask those in positions of leadership: how will you care for those who are counted as recipients of SNAP, Medicaid, and Social Security Disability? How will you bring them from public assistance to independence, and how will you care for them in the meantime? How will you say to these people: “You count”?

We might be focused on the big numbers, such as the 44 million people in the United States who receive food stamps, or the $192 billion dollar cut to that program. But for each individual or family, it’s the smaller numbers that make the biggest difference: a thousand dollar child tax credit, a dollar difference in the minimum wage, a student loan payment, a medical bill. I’m not callous enough to say that none of these programs could be run with less waste or more efficiency. We’re trying to do that here, too. But the huge scale of these proposed cuts sends a message to the people who rely on them: You don’t count.

Some people count, and some people don’t.

Elsewhere in the Torah it is seen as bad luck to do count people, so much so that, in another census, they collected a half-shekel from each Israelite instead of counting heads. So the rabbis ask, why, here, are the Israelites counted? They compare God to a dealer of precious stones. If the merchant is selling glass beads, they might not bother to count their inventory. But the Israelites, they say, are like fine pearls. God needs us to be counted because each of us is precious (Numbers Rabbah 4:2).

Similarly, another midrash explains that the number given in this week’s census is equal to the number of letters in the Torah. This shows the importance of each individual. If one letter in the Torah is missing, the scroll is invalid. Likewise, if one person is left out, the Jewish community cannot thrive (Itturei Torah on Genesis 1:1).

Some people count, and some people don’t.

It is an ugly truth in every society. But you know who counts? We do. As members of this community, and citizens of this nation, we can speak up for those who may feel like they don’t count. We must communicate to our leadership that each individual in our community, and in our country, is more than just a number. It is our responsibility to work towards the day that each person is counted, not as a half-shekel, but as a precious pearl.

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Dress for Success: What Biblical Clothes Can Tell Us About Modern Leadership

This week’s sermon on Purim and Parashat Tetzaveh. Cross posted to This Is What a Rabbi Looks Like.

Every year, when I sit down to do my taxes, I scroll through my Amazon history to determine what I spent on books, office supplies, and other work-related items. When I get to February and March, I am filled with gratitude that I am in a profession where a Marilyn Monroe wig is a business expense.

Purim is upon us, and that means we are paying special attention to our clothing. We dress in costume, of course (a reminder that this year we will have prizes for doing so!). But the theme of clothing is also woven through the Purim story: who is wearing it, and who isn’t wearing it. The King asks Vashti to appear before his friends wearing her royal crown—perhaps, the rabbis suggest, only her royal crown—and she refuses. After banishing Vashti, the King places that same crown on Esther’s head. Mordechai wears sackcloth and ashes when he hears of the edict to execute the Jews of Shushan, and the king’s own royal robes, when a jealous Haman is forced to honor his rival. Esther employs perfumes and cosmetics to win the king’s heart, and puts on royal robes to change the king’s mind. And while Haman’s famous hat doesn’t appear anywhere in the biblical story, we all know to associate its triangular shape with evil, or possibly, with prune filling.

Clothing is more than what covers our bodies. It is part of what defines us as human beings. As Nechama Leibowitz points out: “Humans are the only creatures in the universe who do not rest content with their natural skin” (Etz Chayim, p. 504). Clothing sends a message both to the wearer and to the outside world. Nowhere is this more apparent than in this week’s Torah portion, Tetzaveh, where we learn the design of the clothing of the priesthood, particularly the elaborate garments of the high priest.

In a society where most clothing would have been overwhelmingly beige, the colorful design of the high priest’s outfit indicates his elevated status. The embroidery alone requires the work of many dedicated Israelites. Gold, blue, purple, and red dyes—all expensive to produce—figure prominently in the high priests’ outfit. Precious stones and metals decorate his forehead, shoulders, chest, and ankles.

These fancy pieces did not just serve to show the Israelites who is boss. In fact, it is likely that they did exactly the opposite.

high priest outfitWhile the other priests wore simple, modest linen garments—tunics, sashes, turbans, and pants—the high priest’s outfit included a more decorative item called an ephod, which resembles a heavily embroidered apron. The centerpiece of this ephod was the choshen mishpat, the “breastpiece of decision,” containing the Urim and Thummim, a pair of stones used to divine God’s will. The choshen is embellished with 12 precious stones, each engraved with the name of one of the tribes of Israel. Furthermore, on each of his shoulders, the high priest wears one of two onyx stones, each engraved with the names of six of the 12 tribes. “Thus Aaron shall carry the instrument of decision over his heart before the Eternal at all times” (Exodus 28: 30).

Why would God insist that the high priest be so…bedazzled? Wouldn’t all that bling be heavy to carry around?

While the use of precious stones was an indicator of the high priest’s status, the engraving on the stones serves a dual purpose. The first is so that, when the high priest appeared before God, God would remember the covenant God had made with all the Israelites. The second is so that neither the high priest nor the Israelites would ever forget that the high priest was their representative. Biblical archaeologist Carol Meyers writes that the breastplate, “symbolizes the presence of all Israel in the decisions made with the ephod and gives authority to those rulings; it also carries the implicit hope for divine awareness of the people and their needs” (The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, p. 478). One rabbi adds that the gemstones “serve as a perpetual and humbling reminder to him that he is the representative of the entire community of Israel before God” (Etz Chayim, p. 506).

This means that, every day, when the High Priest puts on the ephod and the choshen, the gemstones force him to literally feel the weight of his responsibilities bearing down on his shoulders. He may be, as the gold piece on his forehead states, “Holy to the Eternal,” but he is also, in essence, a servant of the people.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we had something like that for our leaders today?

When I was training to be a camp counselor at URJ Camp Eisner, the director read us a letter from a first-time camper’s parent. I don’t remember exactly what it said, only that the parent was grateful, and that the child’s name was Emma. I remember this because, after reading about the great summer the camp had provided for her, someone printed up stickers saying, “I do it for Emma.” I still have the sticker on my now rarely-used camp counselor clipboard. While I’ve long since forgotten who Emma was (I don’t even know if I ever met her, though she’s probably 25 by now) the sticker still serves as a reminder that a great deal of what we do as leaders needs to be remembering whom we work so hard for.

No matter what our profession or calling, it helps to keep a reminder of why we do what we do, and whom we do it for, close to our hearts. And no one needs this reminder more than our elected officials.

As I was reading this Torah portion, I couldn’t help but imagine what a choshen mishpat might look like for our government leaders. Would the president wear a stone for each of the 50 states? Would a senator’s breastpiece feature the names of all of their districts? Would a representative engrave their constituents’ zip codes on their shoulder stones? What would it feel like if a local, state, or national leader had to carry the weight of their constituents with them wherever they went?

We don’t have ephods or breastpieces today: not for our Jewish leaders, and not for our political ones. Thus, it is incumbent upon us to remind our leaders whom they serve. Rabbis get these reminders when we meet with our lay leadership, and when people come to us directly to tell us what they need or want. Although we cannot possibly please everyone, even in a small community, knowing what our community is thinking and feeling helps us to be better rabbis. It helps us to point ourselves in the right direction, not necessarily where we want the congregation to go, but where we believe the congregation itself wants to be.

Politicians get these reminders when we visit, call, or write to them. In the wake of recent events, some organizations are suggesting we do this every day. This is relatively new territory for me, as I previously only spoke to my representatives on a handful of designated advocacy days. Now I receive daily reminders to call, write, or visit our local, state, and national leaders, to remind them who I am, what my values are, and that I will support any effort the government makes to take better care of the people.

On the flip side of this, as a leader myself, I am feeling the weight of our community’s needs. Many people we serve here at Vassar Temple have expressed a desire to advocate publicly for Jewish values in partnership with our synagogue community. Just as many of our people have expressed a desire for the synagogue to be a refuge from political activity, and we respect that desire as well. With six on one shoulder and a half dozen on the other, we aim to strike a reasonable balance.

This Sunday, at 7 p.m., the Vassar Temple Advocacy Group will be meeting to set its course for the coming year. While this group does not represent Vassar Temple as an institution, it provides an opportunity for our members to engage in advocacy that is in line with our Jewish values, in partnership with our sacred community. We work in conjunction with Reform Jewish Voice of New York State, which is a non-partisan group that advocates on issues including hunger, reproductive rights, and equality for women and the LGBTQ community. While we do not expect the entire Reform Jewish community, or even all of Vassar Temple itself, to be aligned on how we approach these issues, we cannot deny that these are concerns we all share, and that part of being Jewish is standing up for what we believe in, whether we do this individual, or together.

Like the stones on the choshen mishpat, we are called to remind our leaders who it is they serve, to be the weight on their shoulders, and the precious stones that they display proudly to the world.

Tomorrow, we celebrate Purim, which, if we look beyond the elaborate costumes, celebrates the different ways we stand up against injustice. May we be like Vashti, who stamps her feet in protest. May we be like Mordechai, who supports and guides a new leader as she finds her voice. May we be like Esther, who uses her position of power to protect the vulnerable. And let us even give a little credit to King Ahasheurus who, when challenged by those he respects and admires, manages to do the right thing.

Israel’s Elections, the Early Line, part 1 by Rabbi Golomb

Israelis went to the polls on January 22. In this and a following post I will attempt to make a few initial conclusions about the somewhat surprising results.

Most of the commentary and analysis leading up to the elections suggested a rather handy victory, for Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and for the right-wing, religious and nationalist parties. It did not turn out that way. The coalition of Netanyahu’s Likud party and the nationalist and mostly Russian bloc, Yisrael Beiteinu [“Israel is our house”], which controlled 42 seats in the last Knesset, was reduced to 31. Since this single list garnered the most votes – the next largest faction is a brand new list called Yesh ‘Atid [“There is a future”] with 19 seats – Netanyahu will almost certainly put together the next government. It will probably be weak and short-lived.

How Israeli Elections Work

Before proceeding with my observations, let me describe briefly the Israeli electoral system, since it is radically different from the American system.

First, and most important, there are no representative districts in Israel. The contest for seats in the 120-member Knesset is decided by proportional allocation of contesting parties. On election day, voters receive a ballot that presents all the parties running. (By-the-way, there is no early or absentee voting. Eligible voters must be present in the country, on active duty in military units, or serving on embassy or consular staffs. If you are traveling, you cannot vote. Thus, it takes only a day or so to get the complete final tally.) Voters then mark one party. There are no individual names on the ballot.

If a party achieves a minimum threshold – 2% of the total – it is eligible to have a representative in the Knesset. On last Tuesday’s election, 13 of the roughly 30 parties on the ballot met the threshold. Likud-Beiteinu received slightly over one-quarter of the total. The actual individuals who will be sitting in the Knesset is determined within each party, usually through the vehicle of a party convention or caucus. At that time, the party creates a numbered list, 1 through potentially 120. If a party merited, say 12 seats (10% of the vote), the first 12 on their list would then become members of Knesset (MKs).

Once the election is over, the system is similar to Canada or Great Britain’s Parliament. If no single party commands a majority of the Knesset seats, a working government must be created out of forming a coalition of parties. The Knesset itself is both the legislative and executive authority of the nation. Thus, MKs hold all the ministry positions (akin to the Cabinet in the United States), as well as that of chief executive, Prime Minister. The head of the dominant party is usually Prime Miinister, and he (there was one ‘she’ in Israel’s history: Golda Meir) then parcels out ministry posts (usually called ‘portfolios’) to leaders of other parties, until a ruling government commanding at least 61 votes has been formed.

This government can rule for four years, unless: 1) the Prime Minister decides to call an early election, usually done when he believes he and his party are particularly popular, or 2) there is a successful vote of no-confidence – which tends to happen when one or more parties in the government decide to defect – causing a ‘constitutional crisis’ which requires a new election.

Two Newcomers

It will be a number of weeks from now before a new government is formed. I can nevertheless make a few firm – and a few somewhat less firm – conclusions from the election itself.

First, Netanyahu – who is now Israel’s second longest serving Prime Minister (after David ben Gurion) – is simply not popular. He is certainly liked and respected among a certain portion of the electorate, but he clearly does not elicit much passion. Even more to the point, the record of the last four years has been decidedly ambiguous. Nothing particularly bad happened, but nothing especially good occurred either. My sense is that an American style poll of Israelis on the topic of whether the country is heading in the right direction, would reveal a rather low positive response.

Netanyahu’s “victory” was much more a matter of the inability of the established political leaders of other parties to create much enthusiasm for themselves. Clearly, the two individuals who produced the greatest amount of passion were two newcomers: the secular-centrist Ya’ir Lapid and religious-nationalist Naftali Bennet. Their personal successes are intriguing and instructive.

Lapid has been a well-known TV personality. His father was also a media star who led his own party to short-term success a little over a decade ago. Ya’ir is ideologically similar to his father, but has chosen to steer a less stridently anti-Orthodox path. The 19 seats he now commands arose out of two currents in the public mood. One is a sense of injustice within the social fabric of the society, particularly with respect to the ultra-Orthodox population who receive a very large portion of the state benefits and broadly shirk the responsibility of military duty. The second is a mood of suspicion and dissatisfaction with all the established parties and their representatives. No one on the Yesh ‘Atid list has ever been in the Knesset before.

The American-born Bennet (he came to Israel as a child), on the other hand, reorganized and rebranded an old established party, the National Religious Party, whose roots go back into the earliest years of the Zionist Movement. The party, moderate and pragmatically Orthodox, had once been a fixed feature in governing coalitions from the time of the founding of the State. Over the past two decades, however, the NRP transformed somewhat into the chief representative of religious nationalists, the settlers’ movement, whose principal concern has been preserving West Bank lands that have been acquired by Israelis, and annexing them into the Jewish State.

The party’s fortunes have been negatively affected by inroads on the part of the untra-Orthodox among the moderate Orthodox, and by the nationalist-annexationist tendencies of other parties, particularly Likud. By 2009, the NRP had been reduced to 3 seats. The prospects for 2013 initially appeared to be even worse, as Likud combined with the equally nationalist Beiteinu party, and also purged some its own more pragmatic members from the top of their list. Netanyahu appeared to be preparing to swallow the NRP whole. Clearly, this did not happen. Bennet, a software entrepreneur and multi-millionaire, renamed the party Bayit Yehudi [Jewish Home], gave it some vigor, and drew from the same anti-establishment mood that propelled Yair Lapid to significance.

Yesh ‘Atid and Bayit Yehudi combined for 31 seats, equal to that of Likud-Beiteinu. Although dramatically different in outlooks, the success of the two does reflect that a significant portion of the voters want something new.