This week we begin the fourth book of the Torah: Bamidbar, or Numbers. And though we have not taken a break from our weekly reading, Bamidbar picks up exactly where we left off in our story… back in the middle of March. Last week we completed the book of Leviticus, the laws that will help shape the way we create community, govern, protect the vulnerable, and live in sacred covenant with God and with each other. Our time spent reading and studying Leviticus, though, forced a long pause in the narrative we are following, that of the Israelites’ journey from Egypt to Israel. So, this week as we begin our new book, we have to reorient ourselves to where we were in the story and what has happened since we last were here.
As often happens, our text aligns meaningfully with our lives today. It has been, for many of us, a long time since we were together in any kind of familiar way. We have spent the last year-and-a-bit alone or with much smaller groups of people. And the trajectories for our lives that we envisioned before we had spoken the word “Covid” have been upended or suspended or changed. It’s not that nothing happened in this time of pause; it’s just the opposite. But it was different – at once diffuse and saturated. We were forced to see so much of what we had previously been able to look past, or around. Our busyness kept us moving forward – which is important – but in some cases also allowed us to maintain distance from people or issues that needed our attention. As we meet up again with the Israelites, preparing to resume the journey toward the Promised Land, we can look to the text for our own guidance about how we might begin to resume our lives, as vaccines (get your shot!) and warm weather make it possible for us to begin to live together again.
Our portion opens with a census, with God’s instruction to Moses to count the Israelites. How are we taught to count? Se’u et rosh, lift up the head, we read in Bamidbar. This short phrase is packed with purpose. In order to count, we must lift up the head of each person being counted. And when each head is lifted, we can see into the eyes of the person standing before us. There, face to face, we can begin to tell each other the stories of our past 14 months or so. What have we learned about ourselves and our families? What new skills did we hone, or which bad habits did we abandon? Who died since we last sat together: Which mourners still await the embrace of hugs of consolation, and who is not here to have their head lifted in counting and recognition? What life did we welcome: Which babies await our communal embrace, which b’nai mitzvah anticipate an aliyah before their assembled community, and which newly married partners listen for the uplifting sounds of a hearty “Mazal Tov”?
And who has been left out of our narrative? The census in the book of Numbers is for assembling a company of Israelite fighters, an army. So, it therefore follows that those counted and named were only men, who were organized by the men who led their tribes. In our counting and recounting, we know we must do better, to lift up more heads, to look straight into the eyes of more people, even if we are uncomfortable witnessing what we confront. What did we see this year, when we looked into the eyes of people we had previously passed, heads down, moving along our own paths? So many truths in narratives came to life. The number of black and brown Americans who died from Covid made it impossible to look past inequity and structural racism. The reality of women who had to leave the workforce has made it impossible to ignore the need for affordable childcare, family leave, and attention toward creating an inclusive economy for women, and especially women of color. The creativity and resilience (and underappreciation) of teachers who have re-invented the way our young people learn has forced us to understand how to better support education. The commitment to show up with food and support and love to respond to the needs we see reflected back to us in the eyes of those who live in our midst has reignited, I pray, our commitment to care for each other.
As we begin this new book of Torah, let us lift up our heads and take time to look each other in the eye. Our portion begins: Se’u et rosh kol adat bnai Yisrael, lift up the heads of the whole community of Israel. First, we have to lift up our heads to one another. Only then can we become an eidah, a people that are joined together for the sake of a common calling – a community. We are resuming our journeys, restarting this part of our story after a long break. We can reset the pace and insist that each person has a place as we move forward. Whose names and legacies do we carry as we make our way ba-midbar, into this unknown wilderness that awaits? And who will we invite to walk beside us as we travel to the covenanted makom, place, where each person is counted, each story revered, each life lifted up as whole and holy?