Count me in as a responsible supporter of Israel

Dvar Torah Parshat Bamidbar 2024
Rabbi Neal Borovitz
Rabbi Emeritus Temple Avodat Shalom River Edge NJ

In 1993 Julie Silver an American Jewish singer- songwriter wrote a song entitled “Count Me In!”. For the next two decades I used this song as part of my Bnai Mitzvah family education programs at Temple Avodat Shalom.
The words of the chorus are:
“Count me in, I can stand and be a part.
Count me in, let me find my own way
For I can be counted on, and I’m accountable.
So Count me in, count me in , today”

This week marks the 80th anniversary of D Day, the battle which became the turning point for the Allied victory in WWII. It also marks 8 months since the Hamas assault on Israel murdered more Jews in a single day, since the Holocaust.

While visiting Israel in February on a volunteer mission, where I was bleseed to able to comfort and assist survivors and the loved ones of the October 7th Hamas attack, and when I stood at the beaches of Normandy at the end of Passover I thought about what it means to “count myself in”. When I sat down to write this Dvar Torah, my hope was that I could use this week’s Torah reading, as a filter, through which I could make sense of the events of this past year in Israel and the commemoration of the fierce battle of D-Day. and the massive loss human life that occurred on D-Day, June 6, 1944.

The fourth book of the Torah, is known by both its Hebrew name, Bamidbar , which means “in the wilderness” and its English, name Numbers, which comes to us through the Helenisitc Jewish tradition and the Christian tradition and aptly describes the subject matter of the opening chapters of the book where Moses is commanded to take a census of the Israelites. The two-fold purpose of this census was to draft an army who could defend the community and to recruit a class of public servants who would tend to the internal needs of the people. The bulk of the narrative found in the Book of Bamidbar deals with the theme of Julie Silver’s song Count Me In. One story after another involves internal strife and dis-satisfaction with Moses and Aaron’s leadership and constantly points out the challenges of deciding whether we count ourselves “in” or “out” of a group or community, and whom else we count in or count out, as part of our family and community. Truth be told, the text itself of this week’s parsha is rather boring in its counting of the contingents of able bodied men suitable for the military to be drawn from each tribe as Moses begins his preparation for the conquest of the Promised Land. However, because of the coinciding of a number of events in the news week, Parshat Bamidbar, this portion about who is counted, and who can be counted upon, takes on for me a new relevance.

Who do you and I “count in” as part of our community? To which groups of people do we shout out “COUNT ME IN!” and more tragically whom do we count out, and from which groups with whom we might choose to affiliate are we counted out?

In current American politics there are so many instances in which the questions of who we “ count in” and whom we don’t from who has a right to seek asylum, to who can vote, and a plethora of other issues. The issues I feel most passionate about raising today, knowing there are no simple answers, are the serious and salient issues of who counts and who doesn’t, in Israeli society; and who we and our fellow Jews around the world count in as members of People Israel.

Prior to the heinous attack of October 7th, 2023, Israel had experienced a decade of political instability during which the formation of a functional government was a continuous challenge. The invasion of Hamas on October 7th, and the murder and mayhem of that day, which included the taking of over 200 hostages and the slaughter of over 1200 innocent civilians has had both a unifying and a divisive effect within Israeli society and world Jewry.

The initial aftermath of the Hamas invasion of October 7th brought the political protest of the previous 10 months to a temporary pause. In the initial weeks of the war, Israeli society, world Jewry, and most Western nations rallied together and railed against Hamas. As we know, the sympathy for Israeli hostages, the families of those slaughtered by Hamas, and those displaced from their homes in both the areas bordering Gaza and in the North of Israel, where Hezbollah rockets have forced nearly 200, 000 Israelis to be evacuated from their homes over the past 8 months , changed dramatically as the Autumn turned to Winter and has, this Spring, mushroomed into a new wave of antisemitism around the world, including American college campuses. This war is now the longest continuous battle in Israel’s 76 year history. Should not both the Displaced in Gaza and the Evacuees in Israel, who are all dislocated be,”Counted In” as worthy of our concern and our care?

As I mention above, the Torah portion of Bamidbar recounts a census for the purpose of military conscription. Before proceeding on the journey to The Promise land Moses, at God’s instruction does an accounting of whom among the Israelites would hold themselves accountable for the defense of the nation. Today, the small standing army and the reservists of Israel are under indescribable pressure as this war continues. The divisive debates within Israel over the issue of exemptions for Yeshiva students from military service are raging louder than ever within Israeli society. With the reconvening of the Knesset on May 20th the issue of who has a responsibility to proclaim Hineni, I’m here to serve in the battle for Israel’s survival is front and center. Moreover, the questions of who, is counted in as part of the society and who can be counted upon to stand up and defend the nation is not limited to Israeli Jews. As the stresses between Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel grow larger, the questions of Arab participation in defense of the nation have once again risen. So too has the burial of Israeli soldiers who are Jewish under The Law of Return but not Halacha, brought renewed divisiveness into Israeli public debate. Can these fallen soldiers be buried in national military cemeteries or not?

While the Gaza war and its impact upon the civilian population of Gaza, including both those who have died due to acts of war and those who live with the fear of starvation, and the fate of Israelis held hostage by Hamas garner the headlines, I am equally concerned about the constant violence in The West Bank between Arabs and Jews which was the topic of a May 19th New York Times Magazine cover story and the violence that has occurred at protests within Israel and around the world in response to the Gaza War. Who do we count in and who do we count out? Who can Israel count upon to support them in their existential battle for survival? Who can Palestinians civilians caught in the crossfire of Hamas’s Attack and Israel’s response, count on for food, shelter and protection?

Taking a census has been throughout human history, including Jewish history and American history, a controversial issue. At times people are very reticent to let themselves be counted. The cliche “ I’ve got your number” is one reflection of the fear people have to let others know of their existence and residence. The controversies over counting all residents of The United States, in the 2020 census is the most recent example of how the powerful wanted to count out some members of our society and the powerless are too often fearful of being counted.

The positive consequence of a full and accurate census as reflected here in Bamidbar is giving each person the opportunity to stand up and be counted. I hear in both our Parsha this week and the American Constitution”s call for a census once a decade, the responsibility of communal leadership to affirm that every one of us counts.

Bamidbar, this Book of Numbers, challenges us this year to commit ourselves to be accountable for Tikun Olam, the Repair of World. it calls upon as well to count ourselves in as responsible Americans responsible Jews and responsible Human Beings.

History shows that a society that affirms that everyone counts equally, is much more likely to have their citizenry confirm in the words of Julie Silver’s song:

“Count me in, I can stand and be a part.
Count me in, let me find my own way
For I can be counted on, and I’m accountable.
So Count me in, count me in, today.”

About the Author
Rabbi Borovitz was elected the Rabbi Emeritus of Temple Avodat Shalom in River Edge in June 2013 after serving the synagogue as rabbi for the previous 25 years. Prior to assuming his position in River Edge in the summer of 1988 Rabbi Borovitz served as Hillel Rabbi and Instructor in Biblical and Religious Studies at the University of Texas in Austin (1975-82), the Executive Director of the Labor Zionist Alliance on the United States, (1982-83) and as the Rabbi of Union Temple in Brooklyn, New York (1983-88). Rabbi Borovitz, a native of Cleveland, Ohio, received his B.A. from Vanderbilt University in 1970, his M.A. from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religious (HUC-JIR) in 1973 and was ordained at HUC-JIR in June 1975. In March of 2000, he was awarded an honorary Doctor of Divinity from HUC-JIR. Rabbi Borovitz is an active leader in community affairs. He has been a member of the Bergen County Interfaith Brotherhood Sisterhood committee for 25 years. He is the immediate past chair of Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey and has also served on the Jewish Federation Board. He currently serves on the National Board of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs; the Rabbinic cabinet of the Jewish Federations of North America and on the Foundation Board of Bergen Regional Medical Center, the county hospital in Bergen County NJ. He is past President of the Bergen County Board of Rabbis and the North Jersey Board of Rabbis as well as the founding chairman of the Jewish Learning Project of Bergen County Rabbi Borovitz is a frequent contributor to the Jewish Standard and the Bergen Record and a frequent lecturer on Judaism; The Middle East and Interfaith cooperation.
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