Congregation Beth El–Keser Israel

85 Harrison Street, New Haven, CT 06515-1724 | P: 203.389.2108 |

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Parashat DeMidbar Devar Torah

Shabbat Shalom. I feel very privileged to be able to celebrate with Darryl and with all of you this “milestone” anniversary of Darryl becoming a Bat-Mitzvah. Of course, this is, in part, a personal celebration for her, for our family and friends and our community. We look forward to your all joining us in the continuation of this celebration at Kiddush.

However, for me, this celebration is, in part, also a small but important statement. It is, for me, a religious statement. It is a statement that stands, at the least, as a counterpoint to one that I think is made by the censuses described in today’s parshah. Maybe my statement stands in stark opposition to it. In none of these censuses do they count the women. I think that sends a message about whether women count in general, but at the very least, whether they count for crucial purposes of defense and ritual service to G-d. My opposing, religious statement, and one that I also believe that is made, for example, by the rituals celebrating a women becoming a bat-mitzvah, is that women count. Even, I believe, this noting of the anniversary of Darryl’s becoming a bat-mitzvah, is a religious statement that women count.

I want to talk a bit about the censuses described in today’s parshah, and encourage your speculation about what the implications would have been of counting women in these censuses. I also want to talk about our responsibilities to see that strides made in seeing that women now are counted are constantly reinforced.

The first census is pretty clearly a census of males, ages 20 and up, who are fit enough for military service. We get very specific numbers, tribe by tribe, of how many men qualify. In the context of that world, it may be readily understandable that a military census was only focused on males. However, by having a census that only focuses on military needs, it seemingly implies, at least to me, that it is not important to have a census of all the people. Imagine if the parshah has told us, tribe by tribe, the number of people in each tribe, and separately, the number of males, 20 and up, who were fit for service. Would that kind of census send a different message to us, a message saying, “everyone counts”, including all the women?

The second census, what I’ll call the redemption census, I find a strange one. It requires counting of all the male Levites who were at least a month old and a counting of all the firstborn males among all the other tribes. The intent is to create a de facto loophole through which the Levites serve as substitutes for all the firstborn males of the rest of the tribes. We are told these firstborn males are G-d’s. They are kind of the price the Jews have to pay for their freedom, given that their liberation from slavery resulted in part from the killing of the firstborn Egyptian males. Without the loophole of this substitution of the Levites for the firstborn – the redemption of the firstborn – G-d would require the firstborn males to provide service in, and in the transport of, the Tabernacle. I find it strange that G-d creates the obligation of service by the firstborn and also the loophole for getting out of this obligation. Well, I guess we learned about devising loopholes from the best.

As an aside, one of the interesting elements of this redemption census is that there are a couple hundred more firstborn males in the other tribes than there are Levites. To redeem them, G-d provides an additional loophole – money. It isn’t clear from the text who has to pay the money, and what Aaron and the priests are supposed to do with the 5 shekels per firstborn paid, but that’s a topic for a different dvar.

This census also seems to imply, at least to me, that the women don’t count. What would the message to us have been if G-d said that, because of the killing of the Egyptian firstborn, all the non-Levite firstborn, male or female, belonged to G-d, and they all had to be redeemed? Would the redemption loophole make any less or more sense to us if a firstborn female Levite could have substituted for any firstborn, male or female, from the rest of the tribes? If the firstborn women would have needed to be redeemed and therefore this census would have included the women, would it have changed the perspective of women’s role in the community?

The third census counts how many men there are between the ages of 30 and 50 in each Levitical clan. Along with counting, we are told the specific ritual responsibilities of the men in each clan. Some of the jobs, especially when the camp and the Tabernacle were going to be moved, involved carrying heavy stuff. Some of the ritual work involved dealing with slaughtering and cutting up the animals for sacrifice, and some of the animals were big. However, even if we concede the literal heavy lifting to the men, those were not all the jobs, and neither were all the animals to be sacrificed big. Yet again, the message is, at the very least, that for these purposes, women don’t count.

What would the message to us have been if females had been described as providing specific ritual service in the Tabernacle, especially service that was specifically delineated as different from that of other peoples, which would mean that they would not serve as temple prostitutes?

We live in a country and in a religious community where the role of women, and the valuing of the contributions women make, has changed substantially in just a couple of generations. For example, the first ceremony in the US specifically designed to be a celebration of a girl becoming a bat mitzvah was for Mordechai Kaplan’s daughter in 1922. In the shul I grew up in, and the in the one Darryl had the celebration of her becoming a bat-mitzvah, girls were not permitted to lead many of the parts of the service that boys would do at their celebrations, and they were not yet counted in the Minyan. Today, many of the younger members of our community may not even be aware of how relatively new and unusual it is in Jewish life to have women fully participating, responsible and accountable.

However, the effort, maybe even properly called the struggle, within the whole worldwide Jewish community to take full advantage of the wisdom, scholarship and leadership that women can provide continues. In the Jewish world, even among our Orthodox sisters and brothers, there is an increasing recognition that Yiddishkeit is too important not to use the wisdom, commitment and energy of every available Jew to help it survive, and increasing efforts to find ways to do that. Nonetheless, some of our sisters and brothers consider counting women as equals of men in ritual, scholarship, legal judgments and communal leadership, as outside the pale, as something beyond Yiddishkeit. So the effort to have women counted in full goes on.

Each time we elect a woman as a Jewish communal leader, hire or learn from a woman rabbi, count a woman in a Minyan, enjoy a woman’s leading services, celebrate a girl’s becoming a Jewish adult as fully as we celebrate it for a boy, or commemorate the anniversary of a bat-mitzvah celebration, I believe we are making a religious statement about the role of women in our relationship to each other and to G-d. I believe each of these things is a small but important reinforcement of the message that women count. It is a small but important part of the struggle to carry the effort to the finish.

I also think we need to realize that day-to-day decisions we make, attitudes that we express, actions we take play a role in this effort. What decision do we make if we are asked to help make a men’s only Minyan in a shul with a mechizah separating the genders? That is a tough call when someone needs that Minyan to say kaddish, or that shul is where your cousin’s son’s bar-mitzvah celebration is occurring, because other important values are involved. And it is a real tough call when that cousin may not be willing to sit in your shul where women participate fully and there is no mechizah. But it is important, at least to me, that whatever you do, you are conscious of the implications of your decisions for an ongoing effort to always have women be counted. For family and friends, I will go be part of that Minyan and go help celebrate that bar-mitzvah, but it is a hard call every time.

When it comes to the responsibility to defend the country or the Jewish people, do you teach your daughters to grapple with those issues the same way you teach your sons? Would you be as proud of a daughter who joins the Israeli army after high school as you would be of one at Stanford? When you envision a Special Forces operation to save those kidnapped Nigerian girls, do you envision the soldiers shooting the Boko Haram kidnappers only as men? In your own mind, do you fully count the women?

If you are a man and someone from Chabad comes up to you on the street and tries to convince you to put on tefillin then and there, how do you feel about the fact that he won’t try to convince your wife, mother, daughters, sisters, etc. to put on tefillin? Are you willing to say no, thank you, for that reason?
If he pushes you to tell him why, are you willing to say that is the reason?

As you know, sometimes what is not there in something we read may be as important to us and our understanding as what is there? For me, what was important about today’s parshah was what was not there. As we each write the Torah of our own lives and take the censuses of who we see as full contributors in those lives, let us count the women.

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