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Parshat Bemidbar

In a quote: "“We've begun to raise daughters more like sons... but few have the courage to raise our sons more like our daughters.” ― Gloria Steinem

Last week we concluded the book of Vayikra, Leviticus, which contains many laws about purity, sacrificial processes and dedication to God. We now embark on the next book, the next journey - Bamidbar (lit. in the desert), Numbers.

The story begins with a census of the people, a story which we already encountered earlier in the year when we examined our special Shabbatot. For a recap click here. Each tribe of the nation of Israel is counted, or more specifically, every man aged over 20 was counted. These numbers were added and tribal leaders were appointed. The total number: 603,550 people.

Having focused on the idea of a census let us focus on the idea of appointing leaders. The text reads:

וַיִּקַּ֥ח מֹשֶׁ֖ה וְאַהֲרֹ֑ן אֵ֚ת הָאֲנָשִׁ֣ים הָאֵ֔לֶּה אֲשֶׁ֥ר נִקְּב֖וּ בְּשֵׁמֽוֹת׃

So Moses and Aaron took those men, who were designated by name,

The names of the leaders were spelled out before, it wasn't much of an election process, they were simply appointed. Or, more generously, their names and their character merited their appointment to this position. The criteria is not crystal clear, however the text suggests that these people had to be giborim, warriors. They needed to be fit to lead Israel into possible war and turmoil.

What is lacking from this conversation?


The gender imbalance in the text is perhaps laughable. The number of woman can likely be inferred from the final number of the census. But there is a complete omission of women in this week's parsha. This is somewhat strange. Jews were, for a long time, largely progressive in their appointment of women into leadership roles. We have the classics, Miriam, Shifra and Puah. We have Esther, Dvorah and Yael. Even more recently we have powerful women, we have Golda Meir, Stav Shaffir and Ayelet Shaked. Surely this group alone are enough to warrant the women being counted!

We must allow the biblical story to dwell within its epoch. We must understand that at the time this method of counting was largely logical. War was a physical confrontation. People who could physically participate would count. But let us pose a question:

How would we count a census in 2017?

A harder question:

If we were to do a census of Rabbis in the Jewish world, who would count?

These are difficult. It is easy to lay our qualms to rest when reading biblical stories. We can nestle these concerns in our history books. This is why we must look forward. We must face difficult questions when we attempt to pigeonhole people.

The world is, from a social perspective, undergoing tectonic shifts. We must refrain from being prescriptive. Of asserting our biases onto other people. Whilst we only looked at gender here, this a dynamic conversation. We must attempt to judge individuals on their merit, not on their external factors.

As we go through our day-to-day lives, we must always judge people on their "name", that is to say, their merit and their characteristics.

Shabbat Shalom and Shavuot Sameach.

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