Rabbi Robinson’s Sermon for May 22, 2020

Parashat BaMidbar


If you live in Israel or talk to a lot of Hebraically knowledgeable Jews on a regular basis, and you ask how someone is doing, you might get some combination of responses. You might get a ‘baruch HaShem’—praise God (my Safta was prone to saying “baruch La’el, a variation on the theme) and you almost certainly will hear ‘hakol be’seder’. We tend to translate that as meaning ‘everything’s fine’, or ‘all good’, but if we listen carefully, we can suss out another, more accurate meaning: “everything is in order”. That word seder we tend to associate with the Passover meal, but it means the order, and not just what happens when. It means the idea that everything is set, every loose string accounted for, everything just so. ‘t’s’ crossed, ‘I’s’ dotted, everything stowed and squared away just as it should be.

Of course, right now, nothing is ‘be’seder’. While we have gotten used to whatever we can call a routine; working from home, home-schooling our kids, seeing some limited number of people, often across the grass of our front yards, wearing masks, that doesn’t mean that this is normal. Many of us continue to experience this as a time of great anxiety. Recently, our governor has been issuing rules designed to open things back up safely, including beaches for this weekend, and houses of worship. These rules give us hope that we can have some kind of limited communal worship sometime before September, and hope is important. While we may have gotten used to this mishugas, that doesn’t mean we’re embracing it.

Part of all these rules and recommendations are changes to our behavior, guided by health experts, including wearing masks, social distancing, and limiting the number of people in a given space. For many of us, these changes seem self-evident, including the wearing of masks. Interestingly, masks are not meant to protect ourselves from other people’s germs, but to protect others from ourselves. This has been common in Asia for a while. I remember Van Omstead telling me upon returning from a trip overseas that he was talking to someone wearing a mask and asked if he was afraid of catching a cold from someone else. No, the person replied, he was the one with the cold, and he was wearing the mask to not spread the germs.

This wearing of masks is a reminder of our vulnerability and our interdependence. Despite what various protestors might say, we are not as independent as we may think, and our actions and choices have a profound impact on one another. This should be self-evident, but we are very good at hiding from our sense of vulnerability. We are profoundly interdependent. We rely on one another at various points in our lives: in childhood, in old age, when we are sick or disabled or are just limited in skill and capability. Think of all those deemed ‘essential’, and how vulnerable they are in this moment as we insist on our soymilk. As the Scottish philosopher Alistair MacIntyre writes: What matters is not only that in this kind of community children and the disabled are objects of care and attention. It matters also…that those who are no longer children recognize in children what they once were, that those who are not yet disabled…recognize what they are moving toward becoming, and that those who are not ill or injured recognized…what they often have been and will be and always may be.” Relying on others and recognizing our and each other’s vulnerabilities and capabilities, and then acting accordingly is how we can live in an ethical and healthy society. To pretend otherwise is, well, ho we get here.

And we see that reflected in this week’s parasha. The Israelites are commanded to count its numbers, to do a census, but as is often pointed out, it’s primarily a census of men over the age of twenty who can bear arms, who can go to war, anticipating the fight to enter the Land of Israel. Nachmanides points out that the word used to count Israel, tifkodu, is the same word that is used when God remembers Sarah,

וַֽיהוָ֛ה פָּקַ֥ד אֶת־שָׂרָ֖ה כַּאֲשֶׁ֣ר אָמָ֑ר וַיַּ֧עַשׂ יְהוָ֛ה לְשָׂרָ֖ה כַּאֲשֶׁ֥ר דִּבֵּֽר׃

The Eternal took note (or remembered) of Sarah as had promised, and God did for Sarah as God had spoken.

Which Nachmanides suggests that what this really means is that God will take note of them and remember them. But I want to add an addendum to that, as it doesn’t say in the text that God is the one doing the action, but the Israelites. What if it is for Israel to see—truly see—take note and remember what each Israelite’s capabilities and vulnerabilities. Yes, seeing the young men who will be commanded to fight—and die—but also the old and infirm who still have wisdom, the children who need love and attention, the sick and disabled who may need more care but whose presence in the community is essential. Can you imagine what it would have been like for a group of people only recently freed from slavery, who spent 400+ years being told that they were nothing, that their God was nothing, to be told not only that they are a nation of priests and a holy people, but also to be counted and told that they have inherent worth and value? I ask this not only to reflect on the past, but on our future. I have said before that we cannot go back to normal. That’s about safety, but it’s also about recognizing that our society didn’t do what Alistair MacIntyre suggests. That we, obsessed with our independence, do not see the value inherent in each person, and we do not, as a society, rush to recognize our interdependence, our frailties and our capabilities. And we are going to have to do better. We are going to have to reimagine our behavior, starting with masks, but not ending with masks, as behavior that is for the benefit of others, not just ourselves. We are going to have to choose to see each person as someone who matters, inherently, to our society. Each person. Only in this way will we be able to truly say ‘ha’kol be’seder’, everything is in good order. May this be God’s will. Amen.

Post a comment

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.