Friday, June 10, 2016

Counting Everyone In - D'var Torah - Parashat Bamidbar - June 10, 2016

In the beginning of the book of Numbers,God commanded the Israelites to take a census  of the people,  primarily, the men who could go to war if fighting was necessary.
That was then.  This is now. 
We don't count just men anymore.   
The Jewish people have come a long way forward
with both men and women taking leadership roles 
in organizations, in congregations. 
In the State of Israel, women have become leaders 
in the government, in the armed forces, and in other realms of life. 
 There is, sadly, one central Jewish ritual still forbidden to women in the eyes of the Orthodox rabbinate. 
Earlier this week, on Tuesday morning,
Police saw fit to enforce a rule that women
cannot read from a Torah scroll in the Western Wall Plaza because the Orthodox officials who run the site consider women reading Torah at that place as a "desecration."
Many ancient and medieval rabbinic texts saw “the honor of the community” as applying to men.  Women were not counted. 
    There are texts which encouraged women to take roles in the Torah service and even, in some cases read from the Torah scroll if the opportunity arose. 
     Such lenient positions did not survive among Orthodox authorities in more recent times.   Women do not count and are essentially invisible when it comes to reading Torah in public worship. 
    Consequently, Lesley Sachs, executive director of Women of the Wall, was detained for carrying a Torah scroll into the Western Wall women’s section for the service for the New month on Tuesday.   
    Apparently, the Women of the Wall had agreed to refrain from taking a Torah scroll to that site while negotiations were in progress for an agreement to create egalitarian prayer space over the archaeological site near the southwestern corner of the Temple mount.   That process of negotiation broke down, giving way to negative statements from government officials and Orthodox officials.   A compromise almost admitted that both women and men would count equally, at least in one place near the Western Wall. It didn't happen, at least, not yet.  I would not blame Women of the Wall for changing their view of the agreement they had made.  They decided that they would not pass up an opportunity to demonstrate their love of Torah in any place or setting. 
    That was Tuesday.  
     Then came Wednesday night.  
Men, women and children were sitting together in Tel Aviv's Sarona Market,  enjoying the moment.   Everyone there counted as valuable customers and part of the community. 
A terror attack shattered a peaceful evening which those two perpetrators could have enjoyed as well, had they chosen to do so. From the perspective of the staff of the Max Brenner restaurant, when these two men walked in and sat down, they deserved to be treated like everyone else, with kindness and competent service.   No one knew what they had in store for everyone there. 
In the eyes of the terrorists, no one at the market counted as a person deserving of life and dignity.
They murdered four, wounded many others, and shocked a nation and at least some people in the world who were concerned enough to watch.  
   These acts of violence make us wonder and ponder.  How can anyone do such a thing?   
And when it comes to our own attitudes and approaches to community life: How should we, as human beings, count other human beings?
Do they have to be like us? 
Do they have to agree with us? 
Do they have to believe the way we believe?
Do we treat them with kindness even if they don’t return that kindness? 
We are taught to be respectful towards our neighbors and our enemies. 
We may not reach that goal at all times, but we try. 
We hope that no one will take advantage of our generosity, and our assumption that the respect we show will be returned in kind in the moment. 
The acceptance that allowed the two terrorists to sit down at the restaurant without suspicion was lost on them in their single-minded hatred.  
The lessons of this week are many, especially based in a notion of not letting down one’s guard when it comes to security.
But another message that can come through loud and clear is that every person of any age, not only in Israel, but everywhere, needs to count in our eyes and hearts.  
In Israel, that includes the women who treasure Torah so much that they would like to read from the scroll itself in a public place. 
It includes, in Israel, all Jews, Christians and Muslims, some of whom find ways of making common cause towards dialogue and peace. 
Tonight’s Torah reading, at its beginning, could have only said that there would be representatives of the tribes to help in taking the Israelite census without giving their names.   
But their names WERE included to emphasize that every person, every life has value. 
Beginning with our community, may we grant each person an opportunity to be counted as significant.   
The rabbis said – There is no person who does not have his or her time and no thing that does not have its place.   
Women who read from the Torah in a holy place, these four victims of the latest horrific attack, as well as those who survived, all have names.     
And even more, all people in this world deserve to be known by name, accorded respect and dignity and granted the right to be counted and to have a chance develop, throughout a life long on years, a legacy all their own.    
Everyone can count if we make it possible.

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