Sunday, July 17, 2011

Making Sense of the Census

I was doubly honored to be called upon to serve as lay leader for the second week in a row this past Friday, and it seems only fitting to add my accounting of this service as well.  This week, after beginning as we always do with the candle lighting, I noted how in these very hot and humid days of July sometimes people sing Christmas songs to try to cool off, and along the same lines, we could start by reading the lyrics of a Chanukah song.  The song I chose was written by Peter Yarrow, and originally sung by Peter, Paul, and Mary, called Light One Candle, and it goes like this:

Light One Candle
Peter Yarrow
Light one candle for the Maccabee children

With thanks that their light didn't die

Light one candle for the pain they endured

When their right to exist was denied

Light one candle for the terrible sacrifice
Justice and freedom demand
But light one candle for the wisdom to know

When the peacemaker's time is at hand

Don't let the light go out!

It's lasted for so many years!
Don't let the light go out!
Let it shine through our love and our tears.

Light one candle for the strength that we need

To never become our own foe

And light one candle for those who are suffering

Pain we learned so long ago
Light one candle for all we believe in

That anger not tear us apart
And light one candle to find us together

With peace as the song in our hearts

Don't let the light go out!

It's lasted for so many years!

Don't let the light go out!

Let it shine through our love and our tears.

What is the memory that's valued so highly

That we keep it alive in that flame?

What's the commitment to those who have died

That we cry out they've not died in vain?

We have come this far always believing
That justice would somehow prevail

This is the burden, this is the promise

This is why we will not fail!

Don't let the light go out!

It's lasted for so many years!

Don't let the light go out!
Let it shine through our love and our tears.

Don't let the light go out!
Don't let the light go out!

Don't let the light go out!

In case you're not familiar with the tune, here's a YouTube video recording of Peter Yarrow performing the song live:

We can apply the spirit of the song equally to the tradition of lighting the Sabbath lights, and answer the call to justice as we answer the call to worship.  From this point, the service proceeded as usual, leading up to the Dvar Torah (word of Torah).  I started by saying that in leading services two weeks in a row, I was able to say, as you remember from last week...

And in this case, the portion or parsha, this one called Parsha Pinchas, really does pick up right where the other left off, with Pinchas the priest's zealous action in killing the sinners, the Israelite chieftain and Midianite princess who were engaged in relations in public, which in turn put an end to the sinful behavior of the Israelites with the Midianite women who had come to seduce them and turn God against them.  (See the previous post, Sounds of Silence and Talking Donkeys, for more on this.)  So now, at the start of the new parsha, God tells Moses that because of this, he won't punish the Israelites, and that he will reward Pinchas and his descendents. 

But this parsha has much more to it than this brief epilogue to the story of Pinchas.  It goes on to relate that God then commands Moses and Eleazar, the father of Pinchas and the son of Aaron, to take a census, saying:  "Take a census of all the congregation of the children of Israel from twenty years old and upwards, following their fathers' houses, all that are fit to go out to war in Israel" (Numbers 26:2).  The results of the census are then reported in great detail which I won't go into, but here's a summary, broken down by tribe:

  • 43,730 from Reuben;
  • 22,200 from Simeon;
  • 40,500 from Gad;
  • 76,500 from Judah;
  • 64,300 from Issachar;
  • 60,500 from Zebulun;
  • 52,700 from Manasseh;
  • 32,500 from Ephraim;
  • 45,600 from Benjamin;
  • 64,400 from Dan;
  • 53,400 from Asher;
  • 45,400 from Naphtali;

This section concludes with, "these are those counted of the children of Israel: six hundred and one thousand and seven hundred and thirty."  How that final tally was obtained is beyond me, and beside the point.  The question we might well ask is why do the results of this census, which are described in painstaking detail in this Torah portion, included at all?  Surely, the numbers change with time, so that the specific information has no particular utility.

One immediate answer is that the results are used to explain and justify the ways in which the Holy Land is subdivided among the tribes, so that, as it says immediately afterward: "You shall apportion the Land among these as an inheritance, in accordance with the number of names. To the large [tribe] you shall give a larger inheritance and to a smaller tribe you shall give a smaller inheritance, each person shall be given an inheritance according to his number" (Num. 26:53-54).  After this, the Levites, who were not allowed to own land, but were considered a holy tribe and source of the priesthood, are counted as well, tallying in at 23,000.

But there is more to the census than property rights.  At the outset, the census is meant to count "all that are fit to go out to war in Israel," so it is also about organization for defense as the Israelites move through hostile territory in the Sinai desert, and prepare to return to the land of Canaan.  But even more than that specific function, this recounting of the census provides a model for how a people can organize themselves.  That's why governments today routinely take a census of their populations.  When the Israelites left Egypt, they left as slaves in great numbers, essentially a mob, a crowd, a mass, and the only social structure they had was a tribal system that worked fine for a household of a few dozen, maybe a few hundred, but could not effectively govern a population of hundreds of thousands.  That's why we see in the Torah the working out of new leadership structures, new forms of organization, a new model that the founding fathers of the United States looked to, and drew upon, when they endeavored to form a more perfect union.

We should also acknowledge that in order to take a census, you had to have a means of keeping track of numbers, a system of notation, of writing.  The first writing system was developed by the Sumerians in Mesopotamia, and it was developed by accountants to keep inventory, so writing began with numbers, or rather numerals.  The Sumerians were invaded and conquered by Semitic peoples that we call the Babylonians, and the first system of law, codifed law, written law, came from the Babylonian king known as Hammurabi--Moses is credited with the second such system.  We also believe that some of our stories in Genesis originated with the Babylonians, such as the Tower of Babel (that name's a dead give away),  the Flood, and maybe the Garden of Eden.  And one of the great cities of Mesopotamia was Ur, out of which came Abraham, the ancestor of the Jewish people, and the Arabic people as well.

But it was in the Sinai desert that the first alphabet appeared, developed by Semitic peoples, and adapted from Egypt's hieroglyphics, the second oldest writing system.  This coincides more or less with the time period reflected in the story of Moses and the Exodus.  And in Semitic writing, in the Hebrew aleph-bet for example, numbers are represented by letters.  This means that every word has a numerical value, which is why the Hebrew word for life, chai, is associated with the number 18, and why when we write checks for bar mitzvahs, weddings, and synagogue donations, we often make the amount out to be multiples of 18.  The mystical practice of numerology has its roots in Semitic numerals, and the Jewish tradition of Kabbalah, and specifically the method known as Gematria, includes the idea of searching for hidden meanings in the Torah and elsewhere by translating its words into their numerical equivalents.

So the Israelites in the Sinai had the advantage of both letters and numbers, literacy and numeracy, and this forms the basis for the Jewish cultural facility for arithmetic and mathematics, and later on, for finance.  We didn't invent money, or taxation, or interest rates, or accounting, or banking, but we had the literacy, numeracy, and abstract thinking to work in those areas when all else was closed off to us, and to work in those areas when others could not.  And those who were not literate or numerate, and limited to concrete thinking, could not understand how something like charging interest on loans works, and instead charged us with usury, reinforcing anti-Semitism. But the rulers, the nobility of European lands invited and encouraged us to do this work, in order to develop and fuel their economies, and in this way we helped to usher in the modern world.

But to return to the ancient world, the census that is reported in this Torah portion is the second census that was conducted, the first having been done soon after the exodus from Egypt.  And the results of this second census reveal that, with the exception of Caleb and Joshua, and of course Moses, no one from the original exodus was still alive.  They had wandered the desert for forty years so that the generation that was born to slavery, and proven unfaithful at Mount Sinai, would die off, and a new generation born into freedom, and born into the new society governed by God's Law, by the Torah, could take their place.  

I think it is also true that what we call wandering was in no way aimless, but rather was a circling around, a cyclical movement, which is characteristic of the nomadic way of life.  Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were essentially nomads, and in this way the Israelites could return to that original lifestyle after being captives in Egypt. They could reenact and recapitulate the lives of their ancestors as a prelude to reclaiming the land of their ancestors, Canaan.  And while today we no longer live as nomads, we too makes the rounds, year after year, as we move through the Torah portions, parsha by parsha.

This parsha also establishes the laws of inheritance, and in response to a claim made by the daughters of a man who had no sons, God rules in favor of the women, a highly unusual demonstration of progressive thinking in those ancient days:  "Speak to the children of Israel saying: If a man dies and has no son, you shall transfer his inheritance to his daughter" (Num. 27:8).

In this parsha, Joshua is selected as the successor to Moses, to lead the Israelites to the Promised Land, and various directives about ritual offerings are also listed.  And it says, "In the first month, on the fourteenth day of the month, [you shall offer up] a Passover offering to the Lord. On the fifteenth day of this month, a festival [begins]; you shall eat unleavened bread for seven days" (Num. 28:16-17).  Note that the first month is the month of Passover, the month of Nisan.  In other words, the new year begins in the spring, not the end of summer, as it does for us now.  This makes perfect sense, because Passover is the defining moment for our people,  the birth of a nation, so to speak, the exodus from Egypt is our Independence Day, and receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai 40 days later is our Constitution Day.  And a little later, it states, " On the day of the first fruits, when you offer up a new meal offering to the Lord, on your festival of Weeks; it shall be a holy convocation for you, and you shall not perform any mundane work " (Num. 28:26).  The festival of Weeks is Shavuot, when we commemorate God giving us the Ten Commandments and the other 603 that constitute the Law, the Torah.

Later on, it says, "And in the seventh month, on the first day, there shall be a holy convocation for you; you shall not perform any mundane work. It shall be a day of shofar sounding for you" (Num. 29:1).  Although not identified by name, this is Rosh Hashanah, at this time not the head of the year, not the new year, but a special day nonetheless.  It was not until after the Babylonian exile that Rosh Hashanah became the New Year's Day for the Hebrew calendar.  And a little later, "And on the tenth day of this seventh month, there shall be a holy convocation for you, and you shall afflict your souls. You shall not perform any work" (Num. 29:7).  This is the basis of Yom Kippur.  And a little further on we find, "And on the fifteenth day of the seventh month, there shall be a holy convocation for you; you shall not perform any mundane work, and you shall celebrate a festival to the Lord for seven days" (Num. 29:12).  And this is the festival of Sukkot, a harvest festival where we also commemorate the nomadic lifestyle of our ancestors.

So we find in this parsha the beginnings of our cycle of festivals and holy days which, like the cycle of Torah readings, is a way in which we reenact the wanderings in the desert, which were not wanderings without purpose, but natural cycles and rituals of purification and spiritual communion.  Our Parsha comes from what is called the Book of Numbers, but the message is not about numbers, not about doing things by the numbers, for the original, Hebrew name of the fourth book of the Torah is Bamidbar, In the Desert.  And so, in the many deserts that we wander today, may we find justice and redemption, spiritual purification and communion, continuity with a four thousand year old living tradition and a covenant with a power greater than ourselves.

At this point, we continued with the service, and in lieu of a closing hymn, we sang the song written and originally performed by Bob Dylan, Blowing in the Wind--here are the lyrics:

Blowing In The Wind
Bob Dylan
How many roads must a man walk down,

before you call him a man?

How many seas must a white dove fly,

before she sleeps in the sand?
And how many times must a cannon ball fly,

before they're forever banned?

The answer my friend is blowing in the wind,

the answer is blowing in the wind.

How many years can a mountain exist,
before it is washed to the sea?

How many years can some people exist,
before they're allowed to be free?
And how many times can a man turn his head,
and pretend that he just doesn't see?

The answer my friend is blowing in the wind,
the answer is blowing in the wind.

How many times must a man look up,

before he sees the sky?

And how many ears must one man have,

before he can hear people cry?

And how many deaths will it take till we know,
that too many people have died?

The answer my friend is blowing in the wind,
the answer is blowing in the wind.
The answer my friend is blowing in the wind,

the answer is blowing in the wind.

And while I have nothing against Bob Dylan's rendition, why don't we return to Peter, Paul, and Mary to get a sense of the simple spiritual beauty of this song:

In Hebrew, the word for wind, and breath as well, ruach, also means spirit, and in this sense we can understand the prayerful intent of this song.  And with that, the service was concluded.

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