Who counts? And who counts?

Today, we begin a new book of the Torah ,BaMidbar, in English called Numbers.

Numbers (Bamidbar) 1:1 -1:3
יְדַבֵּ֨ר יְהוָ֧ה אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֛ה בְּמִדְבַּ֥ר סִינַ֖י בְּאֹ֣הֶל מוֹעֵ֑ד בְּאֶחָד֩ לַחֹ֨דֶשׁ הַשֵּׁנִ֜י בַּשָּׁנָ֣ה הַשֵּׁנִ֗ית לְצֵאתָ֛ם מֵאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרַ֖יִם לֵאמֹֽר׃

On the first day of the second month, in the second year following the exodus from the land of Egypt, the LORD spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the Tent of Meeting, saying:

שְׂא֗וּ אֶת־רֹאשׁ֙ כָּל־עֲדַ֣ת בְּנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל לְמִשְׁפְּחֹתָ֖ם לְבֵ֣ית אֲבֹתָ֑ם בְּמִסְפַּ֣ר שֵׁמ֔וֹת כָּל־זָכָ֖ר לְגֻלְגְּלֹתָֽם׃

Take a census of the whole Israelite community by the clans of its ancestral houses, listing the names, every male, head by head.

מִבֶּ֨ן עֶשְׂרִ֤ים שָׁנָה֙ וָמַ֔עְלָה כָּל־יֹצֵ֥א צָבָ֖א בְּיִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל תִּפְקְד֥וּ אֹתָ֛ם לְצִבְאֹתָ֖ם אַתָּ֥ה וְאַהֲרֹֽן׃

You and Aaron shall record them by their groups, from the age of twenty years up, all those in Israel who are able to bear arms.

Some context:  The people are long past the experience at Sinai, the Golden Calf, the receiving of the Torah, the building of the Mishkan, and God’s presence has already filled the Mishkan and is with them.  They are about to start out on what will become a 40-year journey through the wilderness.  Some might say, it’s a good time to take a counting – after all, it is important to know who is with you when you start a journey.

God instructs Moses to, literally, “lift the head of all the gathering (or all the community) of B’nai Yisrael.  “Lift the head, raise up the head of each person, by family, to account for who is with us – let’s just notice what a beautiful image this is…  everyone is asked to stand up, look up, and be counted.  You can imagine that for a people who were enslaved, forced to avert their eyes from those in a higher station and look down at their work, their toil in the dirt, the prospect of looking up and being counted has to have meant something in their souls.

Next sentence: “You and Aaron shall record them in their groups, all the men over 20 who can bear arms”

In one sentence we went from an image of everyone lifting up their head to be counted to limiting the count to those who could bear arms – men over 20 – a much more specific, subgroup that probably leaves out about ¾ of the population.  And who is left out? Children, women, the infirm, presumably the elderly, basically anyone who doesn’t fit the description of “men of fighting age.”  It turns out that “kol adat B’nai Yisrael” all the gathering of the Israelites only means those fit for military service.  When you collapse those two descriptions, what happens is that “men of military age” becomes the normative description of Israelite, and everyone else is marginalized, on the side, and uncounted.

This question of “who counts” – as an Israelite, as a Jew, as an American, as a member of a community, as a COVID death, has been with us for a very long time.  And it is really a twofold question:

Who counts? Means, on the one hand, who gets to be counted, included, assigned as part of the group, recognized as “in.”

But “who counts?” also means who gets to do the counting?  Who sets the parameters for what an accounting looks like?  Who defines the question?  Who makes the decisions about who is in and who is out?

Readers might be aware that just this week, this question became real when two academics published an article in EJewish Philanthropy, which was then reposted in the Forward, about the estimated number of Jews of Color there are in America.  They argued that previous reports that JOC equal about 12% of the American Jewish population were wrong for a variety of reasons and that the number is closer to 6%.  They tried to make an academic and fact-based argument but what they quickly learned by the many responses is that there is no such thing as unbiased and pure data when it comes to counting people and daring to suggest otherwise is fraught and dangerous.

I am not a demographer or statistician, but I tend to believe those who argue that for most of the history of American Jewish demographics, most surveys never even thought to ask about race, ethnicity, or mixed cultural backgrounds.  The surveys, created by white (usually male, typically Ashkenazi) demographers had an understanding of what normative Jewish is in their mind and never thought to ask about what they couldn’t see – in other words, they counted the Jews who looked like them and everyone else was marginalized and ruled other. I do not know the exact number of Jews of Color there are in the United States, but we clearly have much more work to do to open the frames of reference when we decide how to count, why to count, and who does the counting as well as who counts.

I understand the depth of pain and anger that the article elicited from Jews of Color and allies.  Not being counted is the equivalent of not being seen – how deeply painful, how deeply soul-denying it is to not be seen for who you are, and how you stand in a community.

Remember, the description of the counting in our parsha is about lifting up heads – RambaN (Nachmanides) has a beautiful comment about this phrase: “The word s’u (lifting up) is only used when the intention is to indicate greatness, i.e. holding one’s head high.” One assumes, therefore, that not being lifted up, not being counted has the opposite effect – to make lower, to debase someone.

Counting and being counted is intrinsically tied up with our identity and self-perception, self-definition of who we are.  And the messages of whether or not we count come at us all the time in subtle and not so subtle ways.

Facebook recently created an app where you can create an avatar of yourself and use that as a “sticker” to respond to posts and messages.  This week saw this app take off like a storm in my extended social media community and everyone I knew rushed to create little avatars of themselves, little self-perceptions of who we are and how we count in the world.

Here’s my daughter Sharon’s post after she created hers:

This is such a cool thing to play with! I made it look just like me the best that I could do. The only thing is, I wish there was an option to add hearing aids even though you won’t see it. In this picture it looks to me like I am not hard of hearing even though I am!

We can’t count what we don’t see.  The only way to expand our vision is to widen the scope of who is doing the counting as well as who is being counted. Broadening our definitions is the only way to lift up everyone’s head to create the valued multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-racial world we all want.

About the Author
Rabbi Elyse Wechterman has served as the Executive Director of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association since 2016. Prior to that, Rabbi Wechterman served as the spiritual leader and educator at Congregation Agudas Achim in Attleboro, MA for 14 years. Rabbi Wechterman was ordained at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in 2000 and lives in Abington, PA with her family.
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