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Counting Each Other In as We Approach Sinai

June 1, 2011 By:
Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell, Jewish Exponent Feature
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NASO, Numbers 4:21-7:89

The Book of Numbers is the Israelites' travelogue, recording our ancestors' journey through the wilderness. We read it this week as we conclude our own journey from Passover to Shavuot, counting the Omer and marking our way from Egyptian slavery to revelation at Sinai. How does this portion help to open our hearts for the powerful messages of Shavuot?

Naso begins, like Bamidbar before it, with directions for taking a census. The Book of Numbers opens by enumerating the Israelites, one by one. As we read the lists of names, distinguished by tribe and age, by duties and responsibilities, we are reminded of the importance of acknowledging the individuality of each soul.

The task of the leaders is to assemble a holy community, a community of sanctity and purity. The Torah is explicit: Individuals with physical impurities resulting from disease, or those who have come into contact with the dead are to be "put outside of the camp." Then those who "commit any wrong toward a fellow human being, thus breaking faith with God" are singled out. When "they realize their guilt," the Torah says, "they shall confess the wrong that they have done" and they shall "make restitution."

The Torah continues with the hypothetical case of one particular wrong: a woman suspected of adultery by her husband, which is followed by the description of a ritual to determine her innocence.

These challenging passages establish boundaries for the community. However, we know that it is impossible to create or maintain a community whose members live in a sterile field, untouched by disease and problematic human behaviors. We Jews have always lived in the world, and the genius of our tradition is our recognition and accommodation of human foibles and other realities of life. Our ancestors created a textual map of distinctions. Over the centuries, we have attempted to read and interpret that map, while simultaneously attempting to create maps of meaning and distinctions of our own.

Each year, we Jews make our way to Sinai, counting the days, measuring our steps, making meaning of our sometimes circuitous paths. When we arrive at the foot of the mountain, we look around and see a truly mixed multitude. Some among us have struggled with illness that has marked us. Some have betrayed others, purposely or inadvertently. Some have wrongly accused beloveds of terrible deeds.

All of us are invited to attempt to put aside our pain and resentments, and to reach beyond ourselves, acknowledging the healing power of the collective. Each of us is called to be present for this singular day, and to find strength in standing together to hear, once again, the Ten Commandments.

This year, with the words of Naso fresh in our minds, perhaps we will see ourselves as part of a community that is sanctified by inclusion, not exclusion. Our communities become holy not because of who we count out, but because of who we count in.

We become a sanctified community when those who are healthy extend their hands to those who are ill, when those who see clearly welcome back those who have lost their way. As we stand together at Sinai on Shavuot, may we gather as one and answer, as did our ancestors, "We will do and we will hear."

Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell, Ph.D., serves as rabbi and worship specialist for the Union for Reform Judaism. Email her at: slelwell@urg.org.

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