Everyone Counts: Parashat Ki Tissa – Drash by Rabbi Heather Miller, March 17, 2017

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Shabbat Shalom,

So, when thinking about when I felt like I really mattered– there was a time two weeks ago when I went to this reading of The Sacred Calling, a book that the CCAR (the association of Rabbinic Reform Jews) just put out that compiles women’s voices. There aren’t a lot of spaces where we hold space for women rabbis’ voices, but in this book are the stories of women rabbis. And I looked and the book is very thick, so you think that every woman rabbi who was ever ordained by the Reform Movement. But I didn’t and Rabbi Lisa didn’t– and we didn’t because we were busy doing the work of the rabbinate, showing up for people and saying, “Hineini/Here I am.”

Well the most invisibilizing things happened– they had this panel of women rabbis who contributed to the book. And they opened with Rabbi Karen Bender, who many of you may know from Temple Judea in Tarzana and she is now at the Jewish Home for the Aging. And, she read the poem that she wrote that they began with, and it was a poem that was an ode to all of the Rabbis who didn’t have the time to contribute to the book. And I never experienced such a profound amount of being seen– I feel like that’s our job as rabbis, and that’s our job as Jews, to see not only the letters that are written on the page, but also to see the white spaces that are inbetween. That’s where we interpret midrash into those spaces, and ask the questions of that which is not there in the text. We have to see what’s not there. And for her to see those of us who were not represented in the book at the outset of the book was an incredibly visibilizing act; it showed us that even though we were not there, we were counted. We were counted among our colleagues. And that’s what I wanted to talk with you about today. It is this great reminder that we each really do count and we each have great power in our ability to show others that they count, and we count too.

In an increasingly globalizing world, we can often feel like the systems are too large or the population is too vast for little old “me” to make a difference. But that is simply not the case. As you’ve heard in these stories tonight.

It is hard to realize our power when society tells us that certain people “count” and others… well, not so much. Some are given privilege, others are not. But, we are reminded time and again that when individuals decide to stand up and be counted on the side of equality, and then band together with others who do the same, and eventually it becomes a powerful movement of change.

After services tonight, in fact, Rabbi Lisa will host a 45 minute documentary screening a film entitled “How We Got Gay,” about the early years of gay liberation and how LGBT people went from deep closets to influential positions– to powerful positions. These individuals stood up and were counted for justice, and together, they changed the world. Through their story, we are reminded that each person has the power to make a difference.

Another story is told by Rabbi Joe Black, you may know of him, he’s from Denver:
A story is told of a King whose daughter was to be married in 3 months. He sent out invitations to his entire kingdom for everyone to come and celebrate at the wedding feast. He also asked that guests bring no gifts. All that he requested was that each household, in the weeks before the wedding, should bring a pitcher of their finest red wine to the town square. There, he had erected a huge barrel – 8 feet tall and 4 feet wide. During the weeks that led up to the wedding, each household was to bring their pitcher of wine to the barrel, climb up a ladder and open the lid and pour it in. In this way, when it came time to toast his daughter and her new husband, they would do so using the shared bounty of the entire community. As the weeks and months passed and the wedding date grew closer, a representative from each household came to the town square, climbed up the ladder, opened the lid and poured their pitcher into the huge barrel. It slowly filled with each offering until it was almost completely full.
Finally, the day of the wedding arrived. The bride and groom stood under the Chuppah, rings were exchanged, the glass was broken. Everyone shouted MAZAL TOV!!! Then, at the beginning of the feast, the King prepared to bless the wine and called for the 1st toast. He held a clear, crystal glass up to the tap on the bottom of the barrel. He broke the seal, opened the spigot and out came a stream of pure…..water. You see, each townsperson, as they heard about the King’s request, thought to themselves: “So many people are contributing to the King’s toast, and it’s such a huge barrel, if I just pour water in, no one will know the difference! So, one by one, thinking that their contribution didn’t count, each person poured water, not wine, into the barrel. The moral of this story is obvious – but worth stating: Every member of a community has value. Every one of us has an essential and vital perspective to share. If everyone does not feel as though their contribution is going to make a difference, then, in the long run, we are all diminished. (http://rabbijoeblack.blogspot.com/2013/09/an-open-community-erev-rosh-hashanah.html)

Every person in this community also counts. This week’s Torah portion, Ki Tissa, sends us mixed messages about the idea of everyone counting though. We learn that everyone is supposed to contribute half a shekel towards the building of the Great Temple. Everyone, that is, as long as they are a male Jew above the age of 20?!

Rashi emphasizes this point when he states: Scripture teaches you here that anyone less than twenty years of age does not go forth … nor is he to be counted among the “men.”

Pretty invisibilizing of anyone who doesn’t fit the criteria, right?

But then, the Torah continues, “the rich shall not pay more and the poor shall not pay less than half a shekel when giving to Adonai’s offering as expiation for your persons.” Which even Rashi recognizes that Rich and poor were made alike in regard to these half shekels.

Later, the Rabbis adjudicated an equalization of who “counts” among the Israelites. The Mishnah written in the year 200, recognized that the people who don’t typically “count” in society, (women, slaves, children, etc.) are later expected to donate to the temple and become part of the census of people who do count.

In Mishnah Shekalim, the rabbis decided to reward anyone who lifted up the existence of these people in these groups by adjudicating law that anyone who paid the half shekel on behalf of anyone in these groups of people, would relieve themselves of having to pay an extra tax on their half-shekel. (1:5-7).

Though the Torah expressed counting in a certain limited way, the Rabbis corrected it and made sure that a more expansive group of people counted.

Why is counting so important? Well, just ask anyone of us in families where it felt that certain members of our family were “counted” more than others. Or anyone who on the play yard as a youth was not counted as part of the team, or anyone whose efforts at work are made invisible as if they don’t count. We know how it feels to not be counted, right. To not be acknowledged. It is a terrible feeling. On the flipside, being acknowledged is an incredibly dignifying and humanizing act. When someone notices the work you have put into something- it is a great feeling, right?

Even Rashi recognizes the importance of being counted. Someone posed the question: Why does God count people, anyway?! To which he answered:

Because they were dear to God, God counted them often.

And then Rashi recounted all of the times God counted the people: When they left Egypt, God counted them (Exod. 12:37); when [many] fell because [of the sin] of the golden calf, God counted them to know the number of the survivors (Exod. 32:28); when God came to cause the Divine Presence to rest among them, God counted them. On the first of Nissan, the Mishkan was erected, and on the first of Iyar, God counted them.

God counts the people because they counted in God’s book!

The Rabbis in the Reform movement acknowledged this as well — they noticed that the next prayer that we are about to recite, the Avot, used to have us link our history with God to the Avot– God of the Fathers– Abraham Isaac and Jacob. The Reformers, being interested in equality, remembered who was missing from the equation– and thus added in the Mothers– Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah– to “count” their equally vital role in building the Jewish community.

In our own community of BCC, too, not only do we add the matriarchs to prayers, or the feminine aspect of God, the Shechinah, to our service, and we include feminine pronouns where there aren’t any, we also recognize the gender fluid. For instance, in our opening song, the Hinei Ma Tov– a blessing that expresses gratitude for brothers to dwell together– the Reform movement has often added achot/sisters, but we have taken it a step further and also acknowledge kulanu/everyone– How great it is not only that Brothers and sisters dwell together, but how great it is that EVERYONE dwells together, regardless of gender identity. Everyone counts here!

These Intergenerational Shabbat services remind us all that people of all generations count. From our founding days 45 years ago, our congregation affirmed that LGBT Jews count. Here at BCC, EVERYONE COUNTS.

Counting people, and taking count of them, is radically important. And the though the Torah sets up a practice of counting men over 20 years old, as you have heard today, the great thrust of Jewish tradition reminds us that in the most significant ways, EVERYONE counts. Everyone has the spark of the Divine within them. Everyone has the power to make a profound and lasting impact on the world. Everyone is precious.

The point is to remember this, even as society would point us in another direction, devaluing swaths of people based upon age, nationality, race, gender, sexual orientation, or any other status. To be Jewish means remembering that we all count. In this coming week, may we each find ways of embodying this principle and showing others that they count to us. Amen!