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B'nai Mitzvah of the Week

Jordan Kraut and Ella shapiro

May 19, 2018

Parshat : B'midbar, Numbers 1:1 - 4:20

God commands Moses to take a census of all the Israelite males over the age of twenty. (1:1-46)
The duties of the Levites, who are not included in the census, are detailed. (1:47-51)
Each tribe is assigned specific places in the camp around the Tabernacle. (1:52-2:34)
The sons of Levi are counted and their responsibilities are set forth. (3:1-3:39)
A census of the firstborn males is taken and a special redemption tax is levied on them. (3:40-51)
God instructs Moses and Aaron regarding the responsibilities of Aaron and his sons, and the duties assigned to the Kohathites. (4:1-20)

For more information and resources on this portion, click here.

Jordan's Interpretation  

My portion begins the book of Numbers, which is the fourth out of the five books of Moses. At this point, the Israelites have escaped from the land of Egypt. Bamidbar, the name of my portion, directly translates to “in the wilderness”. This is because they are wandering through the desert and have not yet reached the land of Israel. On the journey, God teaches the Israelites how to camp in the desert. He also commands Moses and Aaron to take a census, which means to count the Israelites, and split them into tribes. They counted all but the women, children(men under [20]), elderly, and sick. This raised a question in my mind -- why did God want Moses and Aaron to count the people?

Rashi’s grandson Rashbam believes the purpose of the census is to count men who could serve in the military. This makes sense because after leaving Egypt, they didn’t have much protection and were vulnerable in the wilderness. Most other rabbis’ commentaries agree with Rashbam’s theory. But could there have been other reasons?

Another possible reason is to organize. With thousands of people, it is easiest to make tribes, each with its own leader to make sure nobody gets left behind, and everyone gets to Israel.

Many commentators including Rambam say a purpose of the census was to help former slaves who until then had no identity, find one. They were each recognized with a name, which became their identity. When they wrote their names in a special book, they felt valued. It makes sense that in Hebrew the word for census translates to “lift up the head”, which is something someone does when they feel proud. Rabbi Eric Yoffie says by naming each Israelite, the census recognized the uniqueness of every individual.

But I don’t agree with Rabbi Yoffie because if the purpose of the census was to give former slaves an identity, why only count the men who could serve in an army? Wouldn’t there be a benefit in valuing everyone -- including women, children, elderly, and the sick? If I were living back then as a kid and were told that I “didn’t matter” because of my age I wouldn’t like that very much. It wouldn’t be fair.

Today’s society and Judaism, particularly Reform Judaism, are more inclusive. I believe if this chapter were happening today, God would have commanded Moses and Aaron to count all men and women who could serve in the military and also separately count everyone no matter how young or old or able-bodied to make sure everyone was present and safe and not left behind. Cantor Rachel Spilker says,”... do able-bodied men represent a community?” By saying this, she recognizes that not only men of military age, but women, children, the sick, and elderly also play a role in a community.

In society today, we treat people equally. Women and men alike can have jobs and equal say in the community. Also, the physically challenged get opportunities in society and programs like the special olympics. Back in the desert, everyone other than able-bodied men just had to stand there and be quiet. However, by including them today, they feel valued and are given a greater chance to participate.


Jordan's Mitzvah Project

For my bar mitzvah project, I wanted to give people a chance to participate in athletics because I play sports and wanted to give back. I partnered with Pitch In For Baseball, a company that collects used baseball equipment and sends them to kids who need it more than us. We collected 85 bats, 30 gloves, and lots more. Thank you everyone who contributed to my project.

Ella's Interpretation

My Torah portion, Parashat Bemidbar, or “in the desert,” talks about how God commanded Moses to take a census of the entire Israelite community. This commandment was given to Moses two years after the Israelites’ departure from Egypt. All males over the age of twenty were counted by Moses in the census, and he determined that there were a total of 603,550. This number did NOT include the 22,000 Levites, who God wanted kept separately because they were responsible for the sacred objects of the Tabernacle. I would also point out that this census did not include any women.

My key koshi, or key question, is why did God command Moses to take a census of the Israelites? I chose this koshi because I believe that God watches over all of us and if he was watching over the Israelites, then why would he need to count them?

Rashi teaches that the children of God are very dear to him, so he counts them all the time. I agree with this, because before the Israelites had to wander in the desert for 40 years, they had been slaves in Egypt, and God wanted to make sure they were ok. Rabbi Jacob J. Weinstein adds that “the census enables the Israelites to identify individual talents and abilities.” I think that God wanted this, because while they were slaves in Egypt they may have lost their sense of individuality. God must have believed that if the Israelites could recognize their many talents and abilities, they would be able to form a successful community and work together to eventually find their way to the promised land.

This has relevance today for the Jewish people, as even though we are no longer wandering in the desert, we still need to work together as one community to make sure that does not happen to us again. When I visited Israel 2 years ago I thought it was a pretty incredible place, but we still have work to do to make it everything the Israelites had hoped for.

Through my torah portion and becoming a Bat Mitzvah I have learned that there is always someone looking after us and our best interests, whether it is God or a loved one. To bring this closer to home, I was thinking about how a census could matter in my daily life. While I dont go around counting people all day, I’m really lucky to have friends and family that all have amazing talents and abilities that they bring in to my community. And when I say community, I don't just mean Larchmont I mean my own personal community. That is, the people who surround me and make sure my talents and abilities can be realized. I think God is watching over me, and over all of us us, just as he was the Israelites, making sure we have the people we need around us to reach our own Promised land, whatever that may be.

Ella's Mitzvah Project 

For my Mitzvah project I worked with an organization called Family to Family, to create birthday bags for children from the Coachman Center, a homeless shelter in White Plains. I gathered more than 20 of my friends to create bags that children will receive on their birthday so that they can have some joy on their special day. These bags include things that we all assume we’ll get on our birthdays, such as cake mix, frosting, candles, a birthday banner plus a book and a gift. I have also worked with kids from the Coachman Center through a Larchmont Temple Social Action event, and I know how sweet and deserving they are. Because of my prior experience of working with these kids, my mitzvah project means that much more to me.