Parashat Bamidbar 5776
This Shabbat, we begin a new book of Torah, Bamidbar, the Book of Numbers. We call it Numbers out of its Latin rendering, Numeri, which was taken from the Greek name Arithmoi, “chosen in recognition of the extensive statistical material that opens this book” (Plaut). We call this book Numbers because it opens with a census: “On the first day of the second month, in the second year following the exodus from the land of Egypt, the Eternal One spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the Tent of Meeting, saying: Take a census of the whole Israelite company by the clans of its ancestral houses, listing the names, every male, head by head.” (Numbers 1:1–2)
The instruction given raises a question: Who counts in, in this census?
The verse begins: “Take a census of whole Israelite company”
That word that is rendered in English as “company” in Hebrew is Eidah. The word Eidah is significant to the authors of the Book of Numbers. It is a key term. Generally, it is understood as the entire community. And depending on the context, it can mean an assembly, a band, a company, or a faction.
So which Eidah do we have here at the beginning of Numbers? The verse continues to clarify: “by the clans of its ancestral houses [read: fathers’ houses].”
Do all count in, in this census?
The verse continues: “every male, head by head.”
This eidah is not a full community, it is a military company. God instructs Moses to take stock of the Israelite army.
Yet, the concept of the Eidah is not exclusive to the military. When the word is used to mean community, the men and the women are included.
Should we be upset at the way the biblical authors delineated males from females for military purposes? We in our own times continue to debate gender differences. How one’s gender and physical abilities enable or hinder us from particular roles in society, like serving in combat units of our military. Rather than debate if biblical women should have counted in as ready-abled warriors, another instance shows us that women did in other ways count in, in the Eidah.
Later in the book, Zelophechad’s daughters take action within the community, establishing new rules and policy for everyone. Five sisters—Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirza—experience the death of their father, Zelophechad. Zelophechad had no sons. The sisters present themselves before Moses, Eleazar, other chieftains, and the entire Eidah, arguing that they are the rightful inheritors of their father’s estate. The ask, “Let not our father’s name be lost to his clan just because he had no son! Give us a holding among our father’s kinsmen!” (Numbers 27:4).
Moses takes the case before the Eternal God. God replies, “The plea of Zelophechad’s daughters is just: you should give them a hereditary holding among their father’s kinsmen; transfer their father’s share to them” (Numbers 27:6). God then sets further policy, outlining the different scenarios for the transfer of estates if a father dies without a son. The property transfers to the daughters. If no daughters, to brothers, etc.
While this instance later in our Book of Numbers does not operate according to the ethic by which we now live, it still carries significance. First, women had voice within the Eidah. The sisters could come before the establishment, stand before the entire community, and could voice their concern. Their claim was reasonable, and God deemed it just. And their case also established new laws by which the community functioned, evolving the Israelites’ rules and regulations into a more perfect status.
These sisters, Zelophechad’s daughters, count in here, even if they were not counted in during the census initially.
In other words, understanding adapts. Perspectives change. Law evolves. We are striving toward justice, toward bringing more righteousness into our world, toward an ethical ideal. It’s this principle under which we are united here in our country. We open our own country’s keystone document with the words, “…in order to form a more perfect union… do ordain and establish this Constitution.”
In our own United States, we have not always counted everyone in. It took the 14th and 15th Amendments to outlaw slavery, and count in those who had been denied such rights before. It took the 19th Amendment to count women in on the right to vote. Even still, over subsequent decades, Jim Crow laws enabled states to count people out—out of schools, out of public places, out of public transportation, restrooms, water fountains, swimming pools, out of the voting booth. We all know the history. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 destroyed that injustice. It was another historic moment that showed that when we use the word Eidah, we mean that all should be included. A democratic community that strives for the ideal must include all races and ethnic backgrounds, all levels of income, all expressions of sex and gender. Strides such as these are attempts to be like Zelophechad’s daughters, or when we take that census, all count in.
Three years ago this week, in a decision known as Shelby versus Holder, the Supreme Court struck down a crucial component of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, opening the door for states and localities with a history of restrictive voting practices to change their election laws, without first seeking pre-clearance from the federal government. In North Carolina, voters now have to meet a strict photo ID requirement. Their legislation limited early voting, eliminated same-day voting registration, and banned pre-registration for high school students. In Arizona, one county closed 140 of its regular 200 polling sites, forcing voters to wait hours in line to cast their votes. Since the Shelby decision, 17 states including Rhode Island and New Hampshire, have passed new voting restrictions. Such laws in practice count more out than in; they disenfranchise citizens rather than protect our Union. I worry for our pursuit of the more perfect Union.
There are those working on this issue, our Religious Action Center included, and I would encourage those interested, after Shabbat, to visit their websites to learn more about what each of us can do, personally.
This Shabbat we begin the book of Numbers. And we—as Americans—are officially in election season. The Book of Numbers, when speaking of the Eidah in terms of the community meant ‘everyone’. When restrictive laws would prove unjust, God ruled justly, declaring new rules and regulations by which the community could function. Similarly, our republic is established on the power each citizen has with his or her one vote. This week’s Torah portion and this week’s anniversary of Shelby v. Holder, both call us to consider the meaning of Eidah, of community, and what it means to count in.
May we each be counted in. And may we work to remove the barriers that keep others from counting in, as well.