Parashat Bamidbar begins with a census. The census is taken as the Israelites are preparing to depart from Mount Sinai, after building and inaugurating the Mishkan, the portable sanctuary where we worshiped God during desert travels. We are commanded to organize ourselves into a war camp for safe travel through the wilderness on our way to the Promised Land. No doubt this is a necessary starting point for any journey through potentially hostile territory. But oy how I yearn for the day when the only requirements for travel along paths inspired by Torah wisdom are that a people be organized by great inner strength and courage!
Despite the need to arrange ourselves for protection, not everyone in our Torah portion is counted by military might. There are those Israelites who, for whatever reason — age or sex or ability — are not counted for bearing arms. This excluded women as a whole. Additionally, for other reasons, another class of people, the Levites, are exempted from military censuses. They are exempted because they are needed for logistical support for the Mishkan. Although the Levites are not to be counted in the military census, they are counted in their own census. In fact, there are two censuses for Levites in our parashah.
In the first census, (Numbers 3:5 and following), Moses counts the number of male Levites age one month and older. This is a full accounting of the Levites’ numbers, if “full” in those days meant counting just boys and men. In the second census, (Numbers 4:2 and following), Moses takes stock of the Levites by their numbers in ages of service. Only those Levites between the ages of 30 and 50 are subject to serve and counted. In this second Levitical census, one might ask whether we are counting how many Levites there are in service or how many Levites are needed to perform their sacred service and whether it matters? Since this is a census, we are more concerned with figuring out how many Levites there are in service. If we read ahead, we can find the answer in next week’s parashah, Naso. There were 8,580 Levites between the ages of 30 and 50 who were engaged in sanctuary service at the time of the census. That sounds like an awful lot of people trying to break down or put back up the Mishkan at any given moment. Back to our earlier question: just how many people does it take to transport and care for the sancta of a community? Either too many people or too few, I can imagine, could create problems. Is there a magic number, and are we to conclude that 8,580 is it? And is this the number of Levites needed only for portable sanctuaries that had to be ready for travel at any time, or can we extrapolate from this number an optimal ratio of helpers for a fixed sanctuary?
If we draw a parallel between the sacred logistical work performed by the Levites during the time of the Mishkan and the sacred logistical work that is performed in our synagogue communities today, we might think of lay leaders as Levites. Perhaps today the Levites would be leaders or perhaps they would simply be any volunteer, since the call to build community has at its base an element of goodness that we could call Divine. In either case, when a synagogue today decides to move, it takes many “Levites” to transport and care for the sancta and soul of the community. For proof of this, ask outgoing president Christine O’Donnell, of Reconstructionist Congregation Beth Israel (RCBI), the next time you see her in her newly-found free time. Christine and her husband, David Volin, were two of the Levitical chieftains who spearheaded and oversaw our move from the synagogue’s long-time home in Maywood to our current location in Ridgewood, where we share space, community and programming with our strategic partner, Temple Israel. We can’t thank Christine and David enough for their vision, their hard work, and their willingness to be counted among the sacred team that deconstructs and rebuilds our community.
Every journey has a starting point, and often a destination. But as everyone knows, sacred journeys are not solely about origin points or destinations. They are most importantly about the stuff that happens in between, the things that are only possible because we have enough helping hands to make it possible to get up and go. As a rabbi, I can’t say that the example set in our parashah of 8,580 Levites is a magic number to see a community through major transition, or to thrive and grow. After all, at RCBI we have done well with smaller numbers of exceptional volunteers. But I can say with certainty that no matter how many we have, each of these volunteer leaders counts, and their contributions are immeasurable.
Those of us involved in synagogue life gather this season for annual congregational meetings. In these public forums, it behooves us to take stock of those lay leaders, like Christine, David and other leaders at RCBI, whose contributions build our various communities. Like a census, we too can “count” our volunteer leadership. We can thank and honor them for their hard work and vision. We can do our best to help them to feel doubly valued, not only by their congregational partners, but by the Jewish community at large. Whether the analogy to the Levites holds or not, lay leaders do perform sacred service. As we gather in the coming days and weeks, I pray that our communities are blessed to count many lay leaders. I pray that we count these volunteer leaders twice, thanking and honoring them for their sacred service. May the Source of Salvation bless them and the work of their hands. May we and the entire Jewish people be built up through their hard work and vision. Ken yehi ratzon.