Gilboa is important to me because it is a place where you can express yourself without judgment. For me that means it is a place where you are able to be yourself and act yourself and still be included. I recently had my bat mitzvah and I talked about what we can learn and what we can’t learn from the Torah about inclusion. My thoughts were influenced by values I learned at Camp Gilboa.
Anina’s drash, delivered at IKAR on 3.9.19
I like charts. When I was writing this drash, I made a chart of the book of Exodus. There are 40 chapters. Some of the best, and best-known, stories in the whole Torah: the enslavement of the Children of Israel, the story of Moses including the Burning Bush, the 10 Plagues, the Exodus, the parting of the Red Sea, The Golden Calf, and the receiving of the 10 Commandments at Mt Sinai, happen in the first 24 chapters.
That leaves 16 whole chapters mostly about the building of the Mishkan—the Tabernacle that God tells Moses to build as a dwelling place for God’s self. 16 chapters of detailed, repetitive—really repetitive—instruction on how to build a box that will be taken down and moved on occasion. 16!
This week’s parasha, Pekudei, is the last parasha of the book of Exodus. They finally finish building the Mishkan and God takes up residence. And then the book of Exodus ends. This seems like an anti-climax after all the great stories that people with birthdays in December and January get to talk about in their drashes. But that’s okay because I’m deeply committed to inclusion. So, even the boring chapters deserve our attention.
In order to build the Mishkan, the people needed to fund it. It was the people’s gold and silver and copper, and blue, purple and crimson yarns that made the building of the Mishkan possible. There’s another detail that I found curious. The people had to come together to build it—all 603,550 of them.
603,550 people. That’s awfully specific. The Torah says Moses conducts a census. He collects half a shekel from each person who is over 20 years old.
And then, just a few chapters later in Numbers, chapter 1, verse 2, there’s another census. Guess how many people there are? 603, 550. The same number! Not much time passes between the two censuses, so it is odd that the number stays exactly the same.
Many commentators have been perplexed by this repetition. They suggest the only way the number of people could have remained the same is through divine intervention. That is, God had to step in and manipulate the population so that no one died or passed their 20th birthday.
I don’t buy it. Nachmanides, a 13th-century commentator, explains that there are 3 reason why the Israelites might conduct a census:
1 - to show God’s affection for each individual
2 - to honor every individual
3 - to keep track of the number of eligible army recruits
I like Nachmanides. He seems like the type of guy who would make a chart.
Even though the number doesn’t change, the reason for counting the people is different. In Numbers, we read, “Add up the heads of all the congregation of Israel by their families, by their father’s houses, with the number of names of every male by their heads, from 20 years old and up, everyone going out to the army in Israel, you shall count them by their army units.”
In today’s parasha, there is no mention of families or fathers’ houses or army service, or even the gender of the people being counted. Which made me wonder: were they counting the same people?
The point of the census in Numbers is clear: to figure out the size of the Israelite army.
But in our parasha, the people give their half shekel to help complete the building of the Mishkan, God’s dwelling place. To me, this seems to fit Nachmanides’ second possibility: the census is a way to honor them for contributing to the work of the community.
And if the reason for counting them is different, it stands to reason that the people are different too. The midrash says that it was the women who gave their gold, silver, and mirrors to the building of the Mishkan. Surely, those women were honored along with the men.
Egalitarian ideals are important to me, so I breathed a sigh of relief when I figured that out. But even that left me unsatisfied. The census in Numbers does exclude women, children, older people, and those not able to serve in the army. But the census in Pekudei also leaves some people out. It counts only those men and women with enough money to give half a shekel each.
Neither census is an accurate representation of the population because each one is limited. Whether through army service or money, those who participate are valued because of what they can offer.
What about everyone else? The children? The elderly? The non-able bodied? Is the Torah saying they are not valuable members of the community?
How we count people—whether in the Torah or in our own world—determines how we understand who belongs and who doesn’t. These biblical censuses don’t present a good model for our understanding of community. They seem to go against the values that I have learned at my school, IKAR, and Camp Gilboa, which all teach that every person is important to the community, no matter who they are or what they contribute. I want to live in and help foster a world that welcomes everyone, no matter their gender or gender expression, their religious beliefs, age, race, or abilities.
Building a community is like building the Mishkan. It may not make for an interesting story. There will probably be no burning bushes. It takes time, a lot of detailed work, some blue, purple, and crimson yarn. And, if we do it right—if we expand our understanding of who is welcome—we can build something holy.