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Posts Tagged ‘respect for individual’

            The birth of a child (or in my case last Saturday a grandchild) is a sobering moment, an event that spurs reflection and even, perhaps, a bit of revelation.  My granddaughter, Libby Mae, was born last Shabbat morning.  I got word of her arrival just before Shabbat morning services.  By mid morning Sunday we were in the hospital meeting her.  First impression – she looks a lot like our older granddaughter Amelia did as a baby.  Indeed, all three grandchildren share brown eyes, similar eyes, nose and mouth, and full heads of hair as newborns.  Same parentage seems to get similar results.  But as we spent the week with her, perhaps not really.

Already I can see significant differences in Libby, now only 6 days old, and her older siblings – even in personality.  There is no doubt about her relationship to them, but there is also no doubt that she is going to be her own, very individual person.  She will be nobody’s clone, unlike any other child.  She will be one of a kind and cannot be counted.

What do I mean by that?  Well, even though I am officially “off duty” from my congregation this week (on new grandparent duty), I know that this week’s Torah portion is Ki Tisa.  It begins with the call for a census of the children of Israel.  That process in Hebrew is described as tisa et rosh, a lifting of the head.  Each person being counted is given a half shekel, which in turn is given as an offering to God at the central sanctuary.  Then the half shekels are counted.  It is my teacher from HUC, Dr. Michael Chernick, who taught us that this was a way of recognizing that individual souls are different and cannot be counted.  Counting, i.e. numbering, can only be of objects, not of people.  He went on to say that the reason the tattooing of numbers on Jews at the concentration camps was so utterly debasing, is that it reduced them to things, as opposed to recognizing each as an individual.  Jewish tradition respects the individuality of each person.  Each child, each person, is one of a kind and cannot be counted.

In this way, at least according to classical Jewish mysticism, we are b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God.  For God is described in texts by kabbalists such as Luria and Cordevero as “one that cannot be counted.”  Now we add to this the description of the process of the census as “the lifting of the head.”  The process of conducting the census should not just be a way to arrive at a number of people, but to do so in a way that elevates their individuality.  The Jewish lesson is simple and clear:  people are not commodities.

Which now brings me to a wider observation.  Despite a lot of professions of concern for the individual, or for individual rights, by any part of the political spectrum, the resulting rhetoric is often a reduction of individuals to statistics – a demeaning of the individual.  For example, candidate Mitt Romney’s infamous “47%” remark is a reflection of the wider oft stated conservative view (particularly on cable news and talk radio) that the country is divided into makers and takers.  This ignores the individual circumstances that lead any individual to “take” advantage of government support.  They include, those who actually are “takers,” hard working poor in jobs that do not pay enough to support their families, farmers taking government subsidies, rich corporations receiving special tax credits, single parents trying to get an education to lift themselves up while supporting a child, and many, many more individual stories.  We can agree or disagree with any of these stories, but to categorize large groups by statistics, while useful for understanding the makeup of a population, cannot be a basis for making moral judgments on ANY of the individuals involved.

The left is culpable as well, by making judgments on those who make up the “one percent” as greedy, narcissistic power grabbers.  While there are some who might be, each person has an individual story, many of them inspiring, some disturbing.  My point is that by characterizing an individual by the statistical group they fall into we are failing to honor and respect individuals.  Torah asserts, in the beginning of this week’s Torah portion as well as many other times (see parashot Kiddoshim and Shoftim as examples) that one should not show deference to either the rich or the poor.  People, regardless of where they fall on the statistical economic scale, are worthy of respect for their individuality.

What makes Ki Tisa a particularly poignant Torah portion, from my perspective, is that it begins with a way to carefully respect individual souls while undergoing a statistical measurement.  Following that is an example of what happens when individuals fail to think for themselves and take on a mob mentality – idolatry results (the worship of the Golden Calf) with disastrous results for the community.

There are many steps that need to be taken in order to create individuals who feel respected, but not entitled.  Proper education, access to well compensated jobs, a reduction of the rhetoric of hatred spewed by cable TV and talk radio – to name just a few.  But it all begins with how we view that new child.  So I say, each child is one that cannot be counted.

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