Bamidbar Do you know how a Jew takes a census?
Do you know how a Jew takes a census? How do we count for a minyan, for example?
The Torah commanded not to take a head count, except for the Torah readings that we have in this book of Bamidbar, Numbers. So how do we count?
One was to take a phrase that had ten words in it-as you see the people, you say," Ashre- Yoshvey, Veyetecha, till you hit ten words.
The other was even better--Nisht eyns, nisht zvey--Not one, not two, not three.
Could you imagine the American Census bureau having to count--Nisht ztwei hundred und finfzig, million. I ‘rather go by % points= 10% 20% etc.
In these opening chapters of Bamidbar and next weeks portion of Naso, we do more counting--, we are busy with counting. Literally, we count heads, and there is a lot to do in this portion with heads.
Throughout the readings, we find a very special wording to describe the act of census taking. Not poked, not moneh not sofer-- none of the words to indicate counting, but" seu et Rosh kol adat bnay Yisrael" or “ Take the sum of all the congregation of the children of Israel.”
Seu however literally means " Lift up the head" and it truly has the connotation of uplifting and forgiveness.
Why then, lift up the head. Why not a body count-- how about counting the right arm, or the left foot?
Why the head?
I am reminded of a very , very old joke. A sergeant is drilling his recruits, and he asks them," Private--why never lose your head in combat?."
" Because you wouldn't have a place to put your helmet."
There is a comment by the Hasidic teacher, the Maggid of Koznitz--
Among the children of Israel, its the head that counts. Other nations and civilizations may emphasize other parts of the body-- count the legs, for an athlete, count the waist size, for a model, count the arms, for a warrior- These are the parts that count in a society geared to force, to hedonism, to warfare. But for a Jewish society-- we count heads."
It is well known that fashion models have a tremendous impact on young teen age girls. These young people suffer tremendous anxiety and emotional pain, as they try to match the impossible dimensions of these femme fatales. What do we find in magazines about these models-- the dimensions of bust-waist-hips and heights of the models compared to real women, as well as the dollar amounts that these models earn.
What are we counting? Every part of the body, except the head.
You realize its a torture. To keep a perfect body, you have to starve it. On the other hand, to keep a perfect head, you feed it. Afterall, feed the body, and it gets overweight, clogged arteries, cholesterol, but if you feed the a brain facts, skills, emotional encouragement, moral values and ideals, esthetic stimulation,-- and lo and behold-- it grows better and better.
It is the head, pointed in the right direction, that counts, far more than the muscles and physical strength.
Who now is to be counted first? We start with the head of each clan.
We are told," Ish rosh lebeyt abvotav hu"--
The man who is the head of his paternal household, he is the one.
Now, who is a head? Who goes first?
There is a story of two Jews who enter a synagogue in Jerusalem. Each one wants the honor of leading the services. One is an oleh hadash, a new comer to Israel, the other is a sabra, of the sixth generation.
The sabra makes his demand:
" Who are you to officiate! I am a sixth generation sabra, six generations in the land. I go first".
The oleh Hadash replies:
Yes, I am a newcomer,but I am the first one of a hundred generations yet to come who will live here. You represent the past, but I represent the future. Therefore, I should officiate."
Of course, they turn to the Rabbi. The Rabbi then takes out his Bible, opens to the book of numbers, to this very phrase."
"The man who is the head of his paternal household, he." Said the Rabbi : See here, the word "He" is superfluous. It has no function by itself. So it must mean, that each one of us is to become the founder of a household, each should become the head of a new generation. Therefore, the newcomer, the oleh hadash, who plans to start a new generation in Israel, he takes precedence over the veteran.
What's the lesson? Each of us has to strive to become a head. We have to found and bequeath, not just receive and inherit. It may be wonderful to have a long list of distinguished ancestors-- to be of the First Families of Virginia, or of the descendants of the Mayflower--but what is important will be the accomplishments of the generations that follow .
What else does it take to be " Rosh"-- the head.
Again. looking at that sentence. The word " he" is superfluous. The Rabbis suggested that it really must mean " He is the One", In other words, to be the ehad of the clan, that person ahs to be a leader through and through, inside, as well as outside. Some years ago, the Olympic torch came through Los Angeles-- in fact, it ran right by our house- we couldn't miss it.
It goes back to ancient Greek games, in which the runners raced to get to the finish line, carrying a lit torch. Now, the gimmick was not just to get to the goal at all costs--but to get to the goal with the torch still lit.
This is just the opposite of that famous quotation, by the coach of the Green Bay Packers." Winning isn't everything. It's the only thing."
How many people in positions of prominence do we know of, who are so eager to win, that they forget why they need to win. How many cases do we know for example, of reporters, exemplars of the truth, who invent news out of thin air. Report it as fact to get recognition—until eventuallythe truth let’s out.
Therefore, the Rabbis reminded us," Who ever wishes to be first, to be the head, has to be the head all the way, tocho kevoro-- the inside as well as the outside--the internal qualities--as well as the superficials.
What else does it it take to be a head, to be a leader.?
We always talk of being" Forward looking". There were elections in Israel, we will have elections here soon, and always, always, the campaign is for someone" Forward Looking." But forward looking doesn't mean you'll end up getting to where you want to go.
The Torah portion also describes the order of march of the children of Israel. In the center of the camp is the Holy Ark,To the North Is Dan, to the south is Reuben, to the West is Ephraim, and to the East is Judah. East is the direction of March, from Egypt to Israel--you travel East. But Judah is described as
" Kedmah-mizraha" Camped on the east side, facing the sunrise". However, there are commentaries that suggest that it means==on the east side, facing backwards." There is a tradition that the children of Judah, and the neighboring tribes, Issachar and Zebulun, camped on the east side, and walked backwards as they went forwards.
Afterall, they were in front of the Holy Ark--How could they turn their backs to God's word. So they marched forwards by walking backwards, never loosing sight of the reason they were marching.
It sounds awkward, but have you ever watched a row-boat competition?. How do the rowers sit? Facing backwards in order to go forwards. You have to look back to remember why you go forwards.
How do you drive a car-- Its is true, you sit facing forwards-but what do you do all the time--you look in the rear view mirror, because what's behind you, in the past--may suddenly be crashing into your future -- .
That is why, as much as we need to be forward-marching, we need to do it with one eye on the past, so that we know why we are going forward. We need to know where we've been, in order to get where we are going.
May we always keep our heads, use them well, be heads of new generations to come, and always keep one eye on the past while we move forwards. Amen.