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Torah, the Census, and Inclusion: You Count! You Matter!

Torah, the Census, and Inclusion: You Count! You Matter!

This post is part of #JDAMblogs, a series of blog posts throughout the Jewish community during the month of February in honor of Jewish Disability Awareness Month (JDAM). #JDAMblogs is the brainchild of Lisa Friedman, who blogs at Jewish Special Needs Education: Removing the Stumbling Block. You can participate by writing your own post and linking up with Lisa.

The Torah portion of Ki Tisa is one of those striking parashiyot that demands a close read. It is a portion that speaks to us today for so many important reasons.

In it we find, among other things, an early census, a perpetually beleaguered leader ascending to the top of Mount Sinai, and a disillusioned Israelite nation, prompting Aaron to make a golden calf to which they would pray. Such events give us space to consider various timeless questions, such as: What are we looking for in our leaders? Which idols have we constructed in our own society? To what extent do we truly value and model such entities as patience, courage, and faith?

The census, in particular, relates to Jewish Disability Awareness Month, a time in which we are meant to re-examine and strengthen our commitment to those in our Jewish community who require and deserve added resources, attention, and help.

One argument notes that the census reduces all of us to numbers. We become nameless, faceless parts of a massive whole and are thus denied our sense of unique, idiosyncratic, and sacred selves. The census is thus seen as dangerous and ill-advised. We know well of the times in our history when exactly this has happened, whether in Czarist Russia or Nazi Germany, as the term “Jew” meant little more than painful stereotypes and degrading clichés.  

In our congregations, when we assume that everyone is the same – that our needs are the same, that our strengths are the same – then we stand to overlook the breadth and complexity of the lives each one us lives. This is not simply about such terms as “accessibility” or “inclusion,” but about re-considering how exactly we demonstrate prayer, how we teach and learn, the social justice opportunities we provide, and more.

Then there are those who argue that the census is actually all about empowerment. It seems to scream, “You count! You matter! You are being counted here in the Torah and throughout time precisely because there is not a single other person like you and never will be.” Indeed, the Torah will ultimately seek to count not the individual but the coins they contribute. As my friend and teacher Rachel Farbiarz notes:

The sum of the people, it seems, is a dangerous thing - inviting evil, tempting fate, summoning the evil eye. Thus, God here commands that when Israel is to be counted the people are to use coins as proxy for their persons, so as to ensure '”that no plague may come upon them…” (Exodus 30:12).

It is thus what they bring to Judaism that matters, not what they look like or what they know or where exactly they come from. The coins are “proxy for their persons,” but they also remind them and us, these many years later, that each of us has something special to bring to the community around us. As we continue to strive to celebrate the abilities of all, let's continue to live a Judaism in which everyone feels that they truly count.

February is Jewish Disability Awareness Month (JDAM), a unified initiative to raise disability awareness and support efforts to foster inclusion in Jewish communities worldwide. The Union for Reform Judaism is proud to partner with the Ruderman Family Foundation to ensure full inclusion and participation of people with disabilities and their families in every aspect of Reform Jewish life.

Rabbi Benjamin David serves Adath Emanu-El in Mount Laurel, N.J. He and his wife Lisa are the parents of Noa, Elijah, and Samuel.

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