A few summers ago my son went to Kenya to help build a school on a programme called Me to We; and in fact a student in our shul school is doing the same thing this summer. The fact that we parents pay a few thousand dollars to send our kids across the world to volunteer in an exotic location is a sermon for another time. I’m intrigued by the name of the organization: Me to We. The very fact that such an organization exists tells me a lot about the meaning of the individual and the collective in our modern society, and that is actually what today’s parsha is about.
Today’s parsha is Bamidbar, the book of Numbers. And it really is about counting: it’s an accountants or mathematician’s dream. The parsha wants us to pay attention to how many tribal heads there are. How many males of 20 years old and up eligible for army there are. How many Levites there are. The beginning of Bamidbar, the first several chapters in fact, are the details of taking a census of the Israelites as a tribal confederation. This tribal motif in the book of Numbers pushes us toward understanding ourselves as individuals only with a communal context.
The end of Leviticus is all about the symbolic worth of the individual, where each person is assessed for their “worth” in shekels as individual donations to the Temple: how much for a woman, for a man, etc. The beginning of Bamidbar is all about the value of the community and the integration of the individual into the greater whole of the nation.
The Jewish people are about to enter the land and become a nation. They do so as individual families but within each tribe, and as individual tribes within a nation. Bamidbar is, in a nutshell, Me to We.
And it’s important that this shift to communal identity happens in the desert. In a place where the individual lives or dies based on the sharing of resources and skills. You build the tent; I’ll make the fire. You have water; I have bread. I will hold your hand if you get tired as we cross the desert. If not, one of us will surely perish.
For much of history, holding hands through the desert was taken for granted. We were part of a neighborhood, part of a club, part of an extended family that lived within a few blocks of you; part of a church or synagogue, part of a work union, part of a social class, part of an ethnic group. Today we all have global identities which intersperse, change, evolve, intersect, often syncretistic and a tossed salad of descriptors with lots of hyphens: Jewish-Asian-Canadian-leftist-gay-artist and chef, for example. But what is common to today’s human experience, with all our friends on Facebook and our busy lives in “the world” we still all crave community. If you look at the membership forms for this congregation, which I’ve been privileged to do, you will see over and over again the exact same reason for joining this shul: “I am looking for community.”
The radical message of Judaism in the modern day is not that community is possible or even necessary; that we already know. The radical message of Judaism is that community is created by an act of will.
Samson Raphael Hirsch, a great Orthodox commentator, writes, “A census of this nature makes it clear… that community cannot exist as an abstract idea…”
One becomes a part of community when one moves from seeing community as an abstract concept— “gee, I’d like to be in a community”—to placing themself within the “inner core” of that community as an act of will.
That is what we are here for today. To express gratefulness to those who have created this amazing community as an act of will. Who have raised their hands when the census began and said “count me in.” I’m crossing the desert with this tribe, and I will lend my hand to those who do not want to cross alone.
Here, I hope you will allow me to speak personally as a mourner who is still crossing a desert of her own, and who has experienced the healing power of community. Because to truly be in community is to do something very difficult—it is to perform an act called in kabbalistic thought tzimtzum, contracting of the self to make room for the other. In tzimtzum, we purposely let go of a piece of the ego to be totally present for another person. We do not exist at that moment as a “me”—only as a part of a “we.” Comforting the mourner is an ultimate act of tzimtzum, and it cements the me to the we. Anyone who has experienced a loss without the power of community knows this truth; and anyone who has experienced a loss with the power of community has felt that cement form them and mould them. My friend Adrienne told me "Family is those who show show up for you." When members of a community "show up" they become family.
Being in community requires that we find— and failing to find, invent—altruistic motives in our own lives. In this way, community is intended to function as an antidote to both narcissism and to the loneliness that narcissism produces. In reading what seems to be endless verses of boring and thoughtless census, Bamidbar is actually sharing with us the history of how we got here to City Shul, person by person, family by family, tribe by tribe, guiding us to experience gratitude for community.
A midrash in Tanna debe Eliahu asks what G-d wants from us, and concludes with this simple statement: “This is what the Holy One said to Israel: My children, what do I seek from you? I seek no more than that you have love for one another, honour one another, and that you have awe and reverence for one another.” That is what community demands, and that is what community gives back.
I am personally grateful beyond words to those we are about to honour, and grateful to those who are moving from the margins to the inner core, and grateful even to those who have chosen in whatever small way to do tzimtzum and become part of the this community just by “counting” themselves in as members. Thank you all. Shabbat Shalom.