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Rabbi Robinson, May 26, 2017Sermon

04/28/2017 09:28:40 AM


Yair Robinson

Parashat Bamidbar


It’s late May and early June, which can only mean one thing: graduation. Next weekend is high school graduation, and for the last several weeks we’ve seen article after article, Facebook post after Facebook post celebrating various college graduations throughout Delaware and Pennsylvania and Maryland and beyond.

One graduation that was especially poignant this week was at Bowie State University, more for who was not graduating than who was. A seat was left with the cap, gown and stole of Richard Collins III, who would have accepted a business degree before taking his place as a second lieutenant in the US Army. Instead, his family accepted his diploma, for Richard Collins III was dead, killed in a knife-attack. And not just any knife attack (as if that isn’t bad enough). Richard Collins III, who is black, was killed by a man who belongs to a white-supremacist group. Here was a young man who was preparing to serve his country, who was going to make something of himself and his life, but instead, mostly likely because of the color of his skin, is now only a memory, an unfulfilled promise. 

Did Richard Collins III matter? Did his life matter? Should his life matter to us? Does he count?

That question is the question before us in our Torah portion this week. What does it mean to matter, to count, and be counted? That is what our Torah asks us this week in parashat bamidbar, the first Torah portion in the book of numbers. God commands Moses to take a census of Israel, but not any kind of census. Moses and the elders are to count the able-bodied men of Israel, to prepare to enter the land and, really, invade it, or at least be ready to combat the locals. By definition, that means that this census is exclusionary; we don’t count women, the old, the young, the non-Israelite, and so forth.  For the text, it seems clear that not everyone necessarily matters for everything.

In our lives we are counted in various ways. The census, to be sure. Various statistics. Every click we make online. We are measured and evaluated through our behavior, our apparent wealth or lack thereof, our ethnicity, the way we talk or walk—or don’t. All of that is used to size up whether or not—or how—we matter.

And yet, the command to take the census begins with the words Take a census of the whole Israelite community, literally, “lift up the heads of all the Israelite community”. Well, that’s very different. This isn’t exclusive but inclusive. And even more than that; to lift up their heads, as the midrash says, to lift them up to greatness. In that same Midrash God says “I have made you like Me. Just as I hold My head up high over all the creatures of the earthy, so too with you.” Israel is not merely to be counted in its entirety and not merely to be counted for the sake of going to war but each person is to be counted to lift them up, to remind them that they are created in God’s image, that each one has value and merit and holiness.

It seems to me that the difficulty that is taking place in the text is the same difficulty we as a nation are wrestling with right now. Who do we count? Do we only count certain people—because of their wealth, or position, or status, or ethnicity, or gender—or do we acknowledge the inherent value of each and every person? Do we only matter as commodities to be sold goods and services, or are we truly in God’s image? Was Richard Collins life one of value, of worth, or was he another sad statistic?

To be sure, not every data point is relevant to every issue. But can we truly say that Richard Collins III didn’t matter? As his parents mourn him rather than celebrate his accomplishments and potential, shouldn’t we join them in mourning his loss as well? For me the answer is yes. For me the text challenges us to see those around us not merely as data points, but as lives to be lived, people whose heads should be lifted up—by each one of us. And so long as we only count those we choose to count—those who look like us, sound like us—then we cannot say we are ready to enter the land God has promised us. So let us lift up the heads—the lives—of all, and remember that they—and we, and you—count.

Sun, September 22 2019 22 Elul 5779