Archive for May, 2020

What appears to be a normal collection of data can be used either to benefit the people of a community or just to benefit the leader(s) sitting on the throne. A great example of this can be seen by comparing the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, B’midbar, to a story of King David that appears in two other books of the Tanach, II Samuel and I Chronicle. B’midbar begins with God giving Moses this commandment, “Take a census of the whole Israelite community by the clans of its ancestral houses listing the names, every male, head by head.”  Moses and Aaron are then told to number those who are twenty years or older that are able to bear arms.  The purpose is to have the ability for the Israelites who had been freed from slavery in Egypt to be able to return and occupy their promised land, Canaan.  Here are the key Hebrew words from the beginning of the verse:

שְׂא֗וּ אֶת־רֹאשׁ֙ כָּל־עֲדַ֣ת בְּנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל

S’oo et roshkol adat b’nai Yisra’el

“Take a census of the whole Israelite community”

A more literal translation of this phrase would be, “Raise up the head of each community member of the children of Israel.”  This phrase for doing a census was also used in Exodus chapter 30, at the very beginning of the parashah, Ki Tisa.  What is very noteworthy about the census described in Ki Tisa is the “raising of the heads” of the people was by not actually counting individual humans, but by counting the half shekel each was told to give to God, i.e. the organizing and creation of God’s Tent of Meeting that would be in the center of the Israelite camp. This can be seen as an attempt to not look at counting humans as just counting a material by putting something between the two.

The phrase used to describe taking a census in Exodus and Numbers is very different from the words used in the two versions of the story about King David. In each version, someone against the people tells David to count the people of Israel.  He goes ahead and does it in order to create an army, which he can use to conquer other lands.  The Hebrew word used in II Samuel chapter 24 and in I Chronicle chapter 21 is m’nei, which literally just means “count.” An additional word meaning “count” is also used in I Chronicle.  In both of the King David stories the words describing the census mean the counting of material items.  In Numbers and Exodus, the phrase of “raising heads” teaches us that counting people is supposed to be very different from counting materials.

What King David did was a sin for which he apologized to God for committing.  God punished David and his kingdom by sending a plague that killed a large number of Israelites.  David had looked at the people as a “material” he could use to increase the stretch of his power.  The use of the census in the Torah is for situations meant to benefit the whole of the Israelite people, not just their leaders.  That is implied by “raising their heads.”

The Holocaust provides a prominent historical example of looking at people like a material thing; as opposed to respecting humanity.  In the German concentration camps numbers were tattooed on the prisoners’ arms, which was one of the first steps in degrading them.  Removing the respect for Jews as people was part of reducing their resistance for either torture or murder.  This is one of the most violent, extreme historical examples.

In American history there is a non-violent, commonly used approach, not directed to physically harm people but is still a degradation of humans.  This is still relevant today – using the results of a census to create gerrymandered districts. Like King David, political leaders and parties are focused on their power, not the actual wants and needs of the people.  This has been a practice of politicians for almost two centuries.  It is legitimate to bring up the question of how current administrations, on both the federal and state levels, will carry out the 2020 census.  Will it make sure everyone is properly counted so that resulting districts will be legitimately represented?  Or, will it not gather the data properly, ignoring certain groups to keep the poor and minorities from being properly represented?

The real, final question is will the census be s’oo et rosh, i.e. raising the heads of all the people of our country, or just m’nei, counting people simply as material to the benefit of those in power?




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Who is the largest owner of property?  Is it the wealthiest people in our society?  Is it the federal government or combination of federal and state governments?  If we are actually serious about following religion, about living by what the Torah states, about approaching life in the most honest way, we should absorb a basic lesson from the first part of this week’s double Torah portion, Behar/Bechukotai.  The rituals outlined are rarely followed, but the underlying reason for the rituals should be the basis for how we approach life instead of either radical capitalism or Communism.  Each of those takes the control of property very far in the wrong direction.

The rituals outlined in Behar(Leviticus chapter 25) are the observance of either the Sabbatical year or the Jubilee year.  The Sabbatical year is done every 7thyear by not doing planting or cropping from land (read Leviticus 25:3 to 7).  Rashi considers this a rest in honor of God.  The Israelites were not to worry about having enough food, as they should be planning on preparing food for the year plus having cattle, lambs, or fishing. They were not to force resident aliens to sow or to harvest crops instead of Israelites.  Just as stated about Shabbat in Exodus 20, resident aliens are to be treated regarding this ritual commandment the same way as Israelites. Jubilee is done after every 49 years, again, not doing work on the land but also including a number of additional obligations.  For example, if you have another Israelite doing servitude slavery, they must be freed in the Jubilee year.

It is Leviticus 25:23 that makes the key point about property ownership “the land is Mine, you are but alien residents with me.”  God is the owner of all property, and we must live our lives knowing that we are beings different from God who are given the permission to use God’s land for our lives.  The central points of the Sabbatical years and Jubilee years are not doing the actual ritual, which has rarely been followed, but to teach us a moral reality in life.  Whatever we are proud of owning, however wealthy we are, whatever we believe – basic points of humanity must show us how to behave.

A huge mistake of some religious groups is the condemnation of people who are poor, saying they are poor as a result of punishment by God, or they are rightfully needy because of their own failures.  This approach is an attempt to get people to follow their own particular view of God, instead of actually doing what God commands us to do for other people, let alone actually care for other people.  In Deuteronomy chapter 15 there are further details about obligations to other people during the Sabbatical years we are supposed to follow. We are commanded to do all we can to reduce poverty, even though reality is we can never fully eliminate it. Further, we must release people from slavery.  We must forgive debts owed by those who do not have the means to repay them.

All of this, commanded by the Torah, is against what radical capitalism endorses. Many capitalists feel that ownership and money, concentrated in few people, benefits all of society.  It does not.  It is the attempt by the wealthiest to just increase their power, what they control.  This, by the way, is very different from a free enterprise system, which does promote true competition between businesses.  Fair competition provides many benefits not just for owners, but also for workers and purchasers.  Communism is the radical position on the opposite political side.  It claims to represent the workers however, all Communism does is substitute control by individual wealthy with control by an authoritarian government.  If we are going to act truly serious about what God commands, if we are truly serious about belief in God, our focus of living cannot be only on ourselves, but how we can live well plus help and respect those who cannot.

The Torah does not command specific policies on how to correct poverty.  It lays the basic groundwork, which is to not badly judge people who are suffering.  Human politics in its best scenario is our arena for evaluating human problems by considering different perspectives in finding a solution, not to force a particular point of view.  Politics becomes wrong when the verbalizing gets insulting, demeaning, and worst of all promotes propaganda instead of truth.  There is a midrash from Leviticus Rabbah about a key verse in Beharthat discusses using wrong words.

Leviticus 25:14 says, “If you sell something to anyone from your people or by something from the hand of your person, you cannot do wrong to each other.” The simple interpretation is not to defraud another person when doing business.  Leviticus Rabbah 33:5 offers a deeper interpretation.  Rabbis tell the story of how kings, described in the Bible, used words wrongly that hurt people and they were punished.  The midrash concludes that if a king gets punished for wronging someone with words, anyone should be punished for wronging people through words.

Jewish tradition does not end its interpretation of Torah with the plain meaning, but examines Torah verses to deeper levels.  The purpose is to urge us to look at life in a deeper way, which for most of us means to look beyond ourselves.  If we accept who is the true, ultimate owner of all the world’s property, then we better understand our obligations as the aliens living on that being’s land.  Our obligations include true caring for others, helping those less fortunate than us, and refusing to verbalize in a wrong, nasty way.  When political leaders get these values wrong, especially by not caring for people, it falls upon us to exemplify what God truly commands. Rashi points out that the Sabbatical years purpose is for us to rest in honor of God.  The Torah is clear that the “resting” is from our benefits to make sure we are honoring God through what we do for others.

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