When we count and discount people
At an early morning meeting this week in Los Angeles, one woman among a small group at the table, opened by apologizing for her tardiness. She had been frazzled and frantic for some days now, having been the victim of identity theft and was running (literally) against a criminal ticking clock to protect bank accounts, her husband’s business and the like. Having mistakenly entered her Social Security number and other details into a lookalike but fake banking website, the dark minds at work got to work taking control of her life, ordering a new credit card to an out-of-state address among other cynical actions.
Meantime another at the table shared immediately that a few years ago their home was broken into and within fifteen minutes this “professional” group cut out the wall-installed safe, took all jewelry and valuables including passports and irreplaceable legal documents including ketubot/marriage certificates now impossible to reissue from their original countries of birth.
These true stories it turns out have more in common than we might want to imagine.
The response of the investigation and law enforcement agencies and authorities? In the first case “perhaps you should be more careful about which websites you access”. In the second, “just be thankful you weren’t home at the time”.
And that’s where it stopped. “We were told to file a police report. We went to the station. The officer listened to our report, did not move his body once during our description, stared at us and did not write or type anything we said”.
Nothing to be done.
Comes this week’s Parashat Bamidbar we learn that everyone, every person truly counts. Equally.
“Take the sum of all the congregation of the children of Israel, by families following their fathers’ houses; a head count of every male according to the number of their names… From twenty years old and upwards, all who are fit to go out to the army in Israel, you shall count them by their legions” (Chap 1, Verses 2-3)
No matter which tribe they came from, all men above twenty years old were counted. One like the other, no matter their tribe or family. “And they declared their pedigrees according to their families according to their fathers’ houses; according to the number of names, a head count of every male from twenty years old and upward”. (Verse 18)
Almost fifty verses to start this book of the Torah (Bamidbar/Numbers) dedicated to this count. Every tribe listed and its number of available fighters listed separately.
And around the sides of the Tent of Meeting the tribes were divided into divisions, with their own flags.
But together. Counted together. From different tribes but each equally valuable in what would be the journey toward the Land of Israel, entering it and conquering it. Another 40 verses then to count the priestly families (Cohanim) and the Levi’im.
In Jewish tradition then, counting really counts. Including everyone equally in the count is clearly truly critical for God and for the nation traversing a wilderness on the long route home.
Despite most of us living today in modern societies, developed, somewhat wealthy, with functioning government, democratic electoral processes and robust legal systems, we allow ourselves to live in a desert that looks very much like an impassable wilderness, bereft of any oasis that suggests people, all people, are counted equally. Where those expecting safety are protected. Where those assuming laws will be enforced and law breakers pursued, face investigation and penalized can count on the country, government, community and its agencies to do so.
In Israel for example (though there are no end of comparable, perhaps worse scenarios elsewhere) there can be a sense that not all citizens are counted. Certainly not equally. Not all are given their secure, rightful place with their banner on one side of that Tent of Meeting.
The ever-growing pandemic of violence and murder within Arab communities in Israel. An enormous increase again this year of murders – Arab citizens murdering each other. Spoken about, debated, promises of change and investment, money and resources. An apparent unabated rise in murder between the Jewish population too. Lives discounted. Lost lives counted.
Families who live closer to Gaza, cities like Sderot (which never wished to be a household name) and smaller and larger towns and cities. A feeling by many that they are counted differently than others who live in larger cities, particularly in central Israel. That the trauma and anxiety from sirens and rocket strikes since Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 counts for little until rockets hit more centrally-located cities and only then Israel takes stock and counts differently.
Sexual predators, perpetrators of violence against women and children, who are given light sentences or excused of responsibility. Victims shattered by the lack of justice and the return of these offenders to society.
Politicians, religious leaders, heads of organizations (Israeli and those who involve themselves with Israel) who are tolerated or celebrated as they incite to hatred, racism, violence and encourage cruel bullying or demonization of whole other parts of society – from many sectors toward others.
Because no one stands to say, we must be counted together, all of us equally. Their numbers are my numbers.
If we allow others’ fears, needs and plight to be counted at first but then disregarded, or discounted completely from the get-go, then we risk becoming a community and a society that resembles an unrelenting desert which we will not make bloom.
There, where the wilderness never ends and where instead of approaching a Promised Land and tackling challenges and building a nation together, where we can count people equally according to their rights, roles and responsibilities, the nation risks instead being reduced to a census made up of numbers alone and not numbers that make up a nation of equals to be counted together as a people.