A View from the Pew
Who is in and who’s out:
Numbers don’t always add up
Who do we count in and who do we count out?
Our Torah reading cycle has us in the middle of the book that is called Bamidbar in Hebrew. That word, translated accurately into English, means “in the wilderness.” In English, however, the book, the fourth of the Five Books of Moses, is called Numbers.
Hebrew names for each of the books come from its first significant word, while the English names, derived from Greek or Latin, are more descriptive about the book’s content. The Hebrew and English names for the Torah’s first book, B’reshit and Genesis, both connote beginnings, but after that, the other four pairs of names seem to me to describe different aspects of the same book. In the case of Bamidbar/ Numbers, the book not only begins with a census of the Israelites — it’s about numbers — but also some of its later sections touch on who is to be counted in, and who counted out, of the community, and especially its leadership. The setting of the entire book is Bamidbar —the wilderness of Sinai. It chronicles the 40 years of wandering and the people’s internal struggles both with faith in God and the question of communal leadership.
Most of the Book of Numbers/ Bamidbar is read in the summer months, when many American Jews take a vacation from synagogue. Thus, the stories of the multiple rebellions against Moses’ leadership, as well as the issue of a census for the purpose of both military conscription and community service with which the book begins, are less familiar to many of us than the dramas of Genesis and Exodus.
For both modern Americans and Israelis, the idea of taking a census is commonplace, and until recently it was rather non- controversial. It may come as a surprise, therefore, to know that for most of human history, including Jewish history, there often was an abhorrence to the idea of counting people.
In the ancient and medieval worlds, knowing a person’s number was equivalent to knowing that person’s essence and thereby having a power over him or her. A biblical example of the danger of a census is described in II Samuel 24, where David’s call for a census is questioned. Yet in the opening of Numbers it is God who is heard directing Moses to call for an even broader census than David’s, for the very same purpose — to raise an army. Why was King David condemned for doing what Moses had been commanded to do? Moreover, what do these two stories have to say to both Americans and Israelis about the issue of how we compose our military forces today? Is an all-volunteer army fair? How universal should conscription be? What are valid reasons for exemptions?
My answers to these questions are both simple and complex. Rabbinic literature explains the condemnation of David in II Samuel because David wanted to raise an army for a war that was discretionary rather than commanded. Rabbinic tradition teaches us that except for the conquest under Joshua, the only commanded war is one of communal defense. Moreover, Jewish commentaries on the stories of conflicts in Numbers teach us that it was everybody’s responsibility to defend the community.
I believe that these same principals hold true today. Until the realization of the vision of Micah and Isaiah — a world where nations will “beat their swords into plowshares” — shouldn’t everyone have an equal responsibility to participate in national defense?
This obviously is the number one item on Israel’s political agenda this summer. The issue of religious exemptions was the stumbling block in forming a new Israeli government and the precipitant to new elections that will held in September.
Pinchas Peli z”l, a great modern Israeli biblical scholar, taught, in his commentary on the book of Bamidbar/Numbers, that he saw Chapter One as the creation of the world’s first “people’s army.” Peli was a religious Jew who served in the IDF and was critical of Orthodox Jews who sought religious exemptions. When David Ben-Gurion acceded to the request of religious political parties, made in the early years of statehood, that yeshiva students not be drafted, there were not many such students, and he felt that the political compromise was worth the moral inequity. Today there are hundreds of thousands of yeshiva students, and the split it is creating in Israeli society is great. Moreover, some of the Israelis who are conscripted to serve in the Israeli Army are not counted as Jews by the same religious authorities who demand that their own children not serve in the army. These Israeli military veterans cannot be married in Israel, nor even be buried in cemeteries that are controlled by the state’s rabbinate.
The question of who is counted in and who is counted out is not a question just in Israel. In the last quarter of the 20th century, post-Vietnam War America moved away from conscription to an all-volunteer army. Many of my generation who supported this position thought it would lead to fewer discretionary wars. In fact, that has not been the case. Rather, our American military forces are predominately comprised of poor people, people of color, and immigrants. Some of those veterans of recent wars in fact are illegal immigrants who came to America as children, and whose legal status upon their return from war is in question. If the 2020 census includes a citizenship question that was removed from the census after World War II, will non-citizen residents, including both legal and illegal immigrants, fear being counted? Will the result be a decade of under-representation in Congress and un-equal allocation of tax dollars?
For me as an American and as a Jew, this book of Numbers poses some very relevant and salient questions.
1. In both America and Israel, who do we count in? What are the rights and responsibilities of those who by law are considered equal citizens in a democratic society?
2. For both America and Israel, the question of how we treat members of religious and ethnic minorities has both moral and political implications.
3. What are the long-term implications for Israel and world Jewry stemming from who counts themselves in as a Jew and who the Jewish state does or does not count?
4. Are there lessons we can learn from the bitter internal battles described in the book of Bamidbar for 21st-century Jewry about the price we pay when we allow what the rabbis later called “sinat chinam” — the baseless hatred of one group of Jews for another — to color our intergroup relations?
“Bamidbar: In the Wilderness” is a true description of how I often feel as both an American and a Jew these days. Yet while I feel that the challenges facing my children’s and grandchildren’s generation of Americans and Jews are awesome, while anti-Semitism, assimilation, and arrogance remain plagues on our community, I nonetheless find hope that caring and creative new generations of Jews will wrestle together and find a path out of today’s amoral political wilderness.