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In the rabbinic literature the book of the Torah we began this morning is called “Pikudei” ‘the recording’ for it recalls – yet again – the counting of the People of Israel.  As Kyra Brodkin chanted this morning, “Naso et-rosh b’nei K’hat” count the Kohathites – one of the many censuses that begins this record of our people’s wandering in the wilderness.

To Go Far, Go Together[i]

 

In the rabbinic literature the book of the Torah we began this morning is called “Pikudei” ‘the recording’ for it recalls – yet again – the counting of the People of Israel.  As Kyra Brodkin chanted this morning, “Naso et-rosh b’nei K’hat” count the Kohathites – one of the many censuses that begins this record of our people’s wandering in the wilderness.

Count them, each by their father’s house – for the third time in the same year.

Why does God count us over and over again?

There are two schools of thought in rabbinic literature.  Both are lovely, and both are probably correct to some degree, but modernity has put these two schools of thought at odds with one another.

Some rabbis say that the reason we are asked to count it to emphasize the individual, and the love that God has towards each individual, no matter their differences.  Each individual, who received Torah according to their abilities, and lives Torah according to their moral compass, is important and is pointed out in the counting of the people. We count to show that more than the collective, individuals are loved.  That finding the individual in the crowd is primary.

Other rabbis say that we are counted because the community as a whole is important.  Rashi points out that the counting is God showing love for the whole community of Israel.  Just as you count the members of your family constantly as you move through a busy street, God loves each individual, but is counting because they are members of the collective, the family.

We know that these concepts are not mutually exclusive-  God can love us both as individuals and as members of a community, but it is interesting to pull this question an ask – in a Jewish framework, which is more important- us as individuals, or our role as members of the People of Israel.

Now, just by the way I’ve posed the question, many of you can tell where I am going with this.  But pretend that you aren’t all as smart as you are, and indulge me a bit.

In fact, let me tell you a bit about my holiday.  I just returned from Brazil, where my family and I had a lovely time at the beach in Paraty, Brazil.  Highly recommend it for any that are interested in a nice beach holiday.  While there is the main beach, with restaurants and vendors, surrounding by boats taking tourists out the neighboring islands, there is another beach just a ten minute walk away which is literally an image of paradise.  Blue waters – a sandbar you can walk along stretching out for a distance.  And, if you didn’t have two little humans climbing all of over you and rightly demanding your attention, as I did, you could, hypothetically just sit in the water, and become one with creation.  Then, once you have found your peace, you could walk around, do good works for the local community as an individual, and live a good life, as a loving and loved pious human being.

The first week of my time in Brazil, I had a different religious experience.  I attended the World Union of Progressive Judaism biennial conference, where our member Carole Sterling was elected as the leader of the communities of Progressive Jews around the world. The existence of the World Union, which Holy Blossom and Canada are well represented amongst its leadership, is about the maintenance and spreading of Progressive Judaism around the world and the spreading of Progressive Jewish values. The World Union’s congregations are active in engaging many around the world in Jewish life and in service to their wider communities.  When you travel, I urge you to make an effort to visit some of our communities – many of which feel isolated from the Jewish world and all of which appreciate visitors.

Carole Sterling, in her acceptance address, in addition to quoting Rabbi Splansky, also shared some words from the book of Ruth which we read tomorrow on Shavuot. These words she selected are where Ruth expresses her piety through connection to Judaism not through a personal connection to God, but through making Naomi’s people her people.

Carole comes to her post in the footsteps of many luminaries in the Jewish world, including our rabbi, Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath, and after Rabbi Israel Mattuck who served as founding chair with Lily Montagu.

Rabbi Mattuck preached on this modern tension… in 1912,:  “I once heard a dream,” Mattuck shares, “dreamed by a pious man.  He dreamed that he had died and sought admission into heaven. He thought he had sufficient claim; he had been devout and did the usual amount of religious duty, but he was very much surprised when his knock on the door of heaven was answered by the question ‘who are you, and who is with you?’ He said who he was, but there was not anybody with him, so he was very politely told that he could not come in. Downhearted, he pleaded his causes and recounted all the good he had done, and-how pious he had been, and all he received in reply was ‘we do not admit individuals into heaven.’

“The belief in God is an empty phrase unless they who maintain it live by it and are impelled by it unto deeds and work that shall give undoubted evidence of an abiding faith in God. Conduct, therefore, becomes the test of faith. Conduct is social, bringing blight or blessing unto mankind. The deeds of the one will affect the many, and the faith of the one becomes valuable when it drives him to work untiringly and unceasingly for the welfare of all…  Our worship in Synagogues and churches is vain if it does not make us feel at one with God and with all mankind. Our prayers are but lip service, empty sounds signifying nothing, and our cries of Father, Father, are but cant if our hearts are filled with enmity or indifference toward our fellow men. Would ye love the Father, then love first all His children. Would ye find God, seek ye first the well-being of men.”[ii]

As we have said, God can love us both as individuals and as members of a community, in a Jewish framework, which is more important- us as individuals, or our role as members of the People of Israel.

Rabbi Mattuck teaches then, this lesson –  God’s love of the individual is important but it is not sufficient for us just to have a personal, connection, living a good life, but in isolation.  We must be counted as members of the people of Israel.

We have had many life-cycle events today, as a community.  Celebrating Kyra’s march towards adulthood which we hope brings her back to this Torah and this community in Grade 10.  The celebration with our Confirmands who have stood here and confirmed their place amongst the Jewish People.  And the manifestation of love in the relationship of Carolyn and Jonathan, which they have shared with sacred community on this day.

Each of these individuals and their achievement are fantastic.  Each are holy.  And each are made more holy by sharing these experiences with our community.

I’ll just put a plug in that we are gathering tonight for Shavuot – celebrating our people’s reception of the Torah and barley harvest in Israel.  At 8pm we have our communal HBT celebration, and following that, please feel free to join us for a full night of study tonight at the Miles Nadal JCC.  Teens are invited as well with their own special program.  Then we come back together to support our community and especially our mourners at 10am on Sunday morning.

I’ll end with these words which Rabbi Mattuck shared on our Parashah:

“I rather like that saying that individuals are not admitted to heaven. Selfishness, even spiritual, has no place in piety [in our relationship to God’ love]…. Righteousness, Justice, love and all the virtues are based upon the moral ought, emanating from the source of all goodness, and directed to the interests of all [God]’s children. Religion, therefore, must be put upon a social basis. It begins with the individual, but must culminate with its best fruits in society.” 

Shabbat Shalom


[i] Thank you to Rabbi Splansky for introducing the congregation to this African saying.
[ii] http://lnk.li/?k=S3 with selections from this sermon published by Rabbi Danny Rich in “Israel Mattuck: The Inspirational Voice of Liberal Judaism” Liberal Judaism. London, England, 2014.
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