Thursday, May 17, 2018

Ask Me No Questions, Sing You No Names (Peter Monk & Phil Lesh- "Passenger")

Our 8th-grade son participates in a very unique program that only a handful of Jewish Day Schools in North America offer. The program is called “Names Not Numbers”. A small group of 8th-grade students is teamed with a Holocaust Survivor. This “team” goes through a process of interviewing the survivor. Each team formulates interview questions, conducts the interview, tapes the interview, edits the interview, and produces a mini-documentary about their assigned survivor. The team also has a writing assignment and presentation that is made in front of fellow classmates. In about a week, the final product will be shown before a gathering of parents, family, the survivors and their families, as well as school administrators and various members of the community. It should prove to be a remarkably moving and inspirational evening. Certainly, our son’s experience has been transformational on several levels. He learned a powerful pedagogical lesson. He understands what it means to be part of a team, working together to accomplish a common goal. Everyone had a job, each member of the group had to rely upon each other in order to generate this multimedia presentation. Second, our son touched history, history spoke to him in the voice of the Holocaust Survivor. Our son didn’t just read about something from a third party. He didn’t encounter a primary document. Along with his team, he created the primary document by recording the words and the story of his assigned Survivor’s life. While it is very easy to get lost in the numbers of the Holocaust and the enormity of it; our son saw a number on the Survivor’s arm and that number was so much more than just a number. That number belongs to a name, a person, a life.
This week, we begin reading the 4th of the 5 books of the Torah, Sefer Bamidbar, the Book of Numbers. This week’s Parsha is the same name Bemidbar. Numbers is aptly named. The book begins with counting, the counting of people, a census. God commands Moshe to take a census, MiBen Esrim Shana V’Mala Kol Yotzei Tzava B’Yisroelof all males over the age of twenty, everyone who goes out in the Legion of Israel (1:3). Once the number of fighting age males has been established by tribe, each tribe is placed in a specific formation around the Ark. This will become the formation in which Bnai Yisroel is to travel from the foot of Sinai to Eretz Canaan. Finally the Tribe of Levi, the Priests are counted. However because Levi’s only responsibility is the Ark, and the Mishkan; they will not be able to hold land in Eretz Canaan, nor do they fight. Rather they are now counted and assigned specific functions in terms of maintaining the Mishkan. Immediately after Shabbat, the Jewish People celebrate the Chag Shavuot, The Feast of Weeks, the Festival of First Fruits, the holiday that commemorates Matan TorahThe Giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai.  
God order’s a census of people. However for whom is the counting?  Certainly, God is God and already knows the number of souls that comprise B’nai Yisroel as well as those able to fight. When God wants Moshe and Israel or anyone for that matter to do something for himself the language indicates it. Lech LechaGo for yourself God commanded Avraham, and Shelach Lecha send for yourself  God will command Moshe in several Parshiot from now.  Here, God commands Moshe Se’u et Rosh Kol Adat Bnai Yisroel count the heads. Since Lecha- for you does not appear; it would seem that the counting is not for B’nai Yisroel nor Moshe, but rather for God. So, why does God need or want a counting? We have already been told that B’nai Yisroel is Am Segulaa treasured nation, meaning B’nai Yisroel possesses some type of value. Each individual has value and from that, each individual has a purpose. Parshah Bemidbar demonstrates that there is an intrinsic value in the individual.  Halachically, we know this because the Legal Principle of Pikuach Nefesh, Saving a Soul exists. This principle appears in the Babylonian Talmud Tractate Shabbat, “the saving of life supersedes the Sabbath (Shabbat 132a). There is a Midrash in Tractate Sanhedrin which expresses the individual’s importance to God, and therefore God’s desire to count us. “If a person stamps several coins with the same die, they all resemble on another. But the King of kings stamps all human beings from the mold of the first person; and yet not one of them is identical to the other one. Therefore every individual has merit and is obliged to say “for my sake the world was created’”. (San4:5).
We all are given numbers some numbers are branded upon us because of hatred. Some numbers are ways in which government can keep track of its citizens such as Social Insurance cards Social security cards. Some numbers are given to us to keep track of how we spend. Some numbers are assigned us so that we can contact each other. It would seem that it is very easy to lose oneself amid the numbers that are used to identify each of us. However, as our son pointed out, amid each number, amid each survivor there is a story. Each individual, like the giving of the Torah, has his/her own narrative, a code that allows survival. Like the Torah’s survival depends upon study and transmission, the same could be said of the survivors and for each member of the Jewish People. Everyone has a story and a code. As our son explained to us, his connection with the past and any connection he has with the next generation depends upon his ability to receive the transmission of the story, and then transmit and teach that story as well as his story to the next generation.

Rav Yitz  

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