Wednesday, 04 Mar 2015

Written by Kath Vardi

Who counts?

A few days ago I read something on a Facebook feed that really disturbed me. Whilst I admit I do not have all the background information about why this particular person had written what they had written, I nonetheless think it’s worth exploring a little. The person is an Anglo-Israeli and they had written that they wished the French Jews that had recently arrived in Israel would all just ‘go home’……they bewailed the fact that so many new French children in the their child’s school were affecting their own child’s education and they further suggested that the manners of those French people they had come into contact with were not to their own exacting standards. A British Jew now settled in Israel was calling for French Jews to ‘go home’- even though according to one narrative they were in fact ‘home’ –  home in Israel: Yet their presence and difference was causing the writer distress and upset.

I think that what I learnt from this exchange is that racism comes in many guises – that the question of who constitutes ‘us’ and when is contingent upon where we find ourselves when called to both ask and answer the question.

The opening of this week’s parashah sees God instruct Moses to take a census of the people – all those aged over twenty are to pass and be counted. Those that are counted are to give a half shekel to the tabernacle as they pass by. The half shekels are to be used in the service of the tabernacle – the place the Israelites were building in the desert in order for God to dwell among them.

I think that there are multiple difficulties with this passage – we are told that only the men over twenty are to be counted, which necessarily leaves out all the women and the children; inviting us to ask, do they count towards the people? Or, are their lives subsumed into the counting of their fathers, husbands and brothers? Or, for the purposes of who composes the Israelites in this census, have they simply become invisible? We may posit along with Rashi, that only counting the men over twenty was connected to wanting to know how strong was the potential military might of the Israelites – they were after all on the brink of entering into the Land – (that was until God’s plans changed following the sin of the Golden Calf). At this point it may well be that the census was as much an attempt to establish the military might of the people as it was a fund raising exercise to maintain the tabernacle.  However why not include all the adults – men and women? Why not include the children? Surely it would seem logical that by counting in everyone the tabernacle would at least have been much better provided for…

Could we perhaps argue that there is a connection between the giving of wealth and being counted? And if this were the case, what might the connection be? Could it be that by being counted and donating to the tabernacle the men in this census took centre stage, and gained full personhood and that the women and the children and those under twenty were understood to be less able to contribute and thus less worthy?  Was this the reason that they were not included in the official reckoning of how many ‘people’ made up the Israelites at this point in our history?

I ask these deliberately  provocative  questions because it strikes me that who we decide to count in as a society and who we decide to leave out, and why, are crucial questions, with profound ramifications for how we treat one another and for who ultimately ‘counts’.

Towards the end of last year the British government decided to withdraw its support from the European ‘Mediterranean Migrant Rescue Operation’. This was a project that was to replace the Italian operation Mare Nostrum which had seen the Italian Navy save over 150,000 refugees last year fleeing countries in North Africa and the Middle East. These are people desperate to flee persecution, poverty and war who have been making the perilous journey across the Mediterranean Sea towards Italy in vessels that are barely sea worthy and significant numbers have tragically drowned as a result. Many of these refugees have been young people travelling alone – some as young as six and seven, and many have been families desperate to flee countries such as Syria. They are men, women and children, some of whom have been young babies, all packed tight onto vessels without provisions in an attempt to find safety and security – to find a future elsewhere.

The British government has argued that continuing to provide such rescue services only encourages people attempting to make such a journey. Yet these are people in desperate straits, coming with nothing but what they can carry, willing to risk a perilous sea crossing in order to find sanctuary – but they are also poor people that,- it would appear – our government does not currently want to count in.

If we, like Moses in our parashah only count some and not others, do we effectively render the other invisible? By not counting everyone have we already made a judgement of who counts? Of whose needs we are to consider and whose needs we can permit ourselves to ignore?

Immigration has become a very difficult and divisive topic and it is certainly one which has divided communities. When we welcome people we count them in, we make them a part of ourselves, and, inevitably we too become changed. Currently many of our national immigration narratives are infused with worry about the ability of immigrants to contribute to society and about our own need as the welcoming nation to integrate our new arrivals.  My question therefore is: How do we make space in our homes for others to enter? How are we able to hold on to our own memories of being welcomed in order to welcome another and create a home in which they too can dwell?

When God called upon Moses to take a census of the men by collecting a half shekel from each, it was to build and furnish the tabernacle, the place where God could dwell among the people.  These shekels were to be holy shekels – they were to be dedicated to the service and decoration of God’s dwelling place. The place in which we could meet with God.  And, the Midrash tells us, in order to dwell there, God contracted Himself into one square cubit – so that He could fit and we could meet. In order to make room for us God took a few steps back – He created space.

When we ourselves are welcomed it is often in a home where there is warmth, colour and life; and where a space has been created in which we too can dwell. When we welcome someone else we are effectively doing the same- we are creating space so that they too can move forward, and later, that they too in their turn can say ‘welcome’ and count  the other ‘in’.

But, we know that sometimes welcoming can be difficult, as including the needs of another can feel disruptive.  Sometimes by welcoming we may need to give more than our half shekel.

Sometimes our fears about who will have to contribute and how much can affect who we are willing to include. But, if like Moses, we neglect to number those on the periphery we risk losing more than their potential contribution, we risk losing our own because like the Israelite men over twenty, we may become a monolithic group, devoid of different colours and textures, devoid of stories different to our  own.

When the Israelites built God’s sanctuary with their half shekels they furnished it with silver and gold and crafted intricate ornaments and ritual objects so that it would be a place of beauty and varied hues. They perfumed it with exotic spices and incense so that it would be welcoming. With their half shekels they built and furnished a home that was far from monochrome. With our half shekels we too can build a home fit for God to dwell within.

Kath Vardi
Rabbinic student Leo Baeck College

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.