This week marks the start of a new book of Torah: the Book of Numbers. This week’s portion, B’midbar, or “In the Wilderness,” recounts the census-taking of entire Israelite community commanded of Moses by God. The Israelites are sorted by tribe and all men over the age of 20 are counted, as God commands, “head by head,” with special instructions for the Levites.
We learn that the Israelites total 603,550 men over the age of 20, excluding the Levite tribe. Not only does the census have practical sensibilities, it also has moral significance. God reminds us that, even in the wilderness, even if we are part of a much larger group, we cannot forget who we are. For not only were we commanded to get a general count of the number of Israelites who could go to war, but we were commanded to note which of those troops come from which tribes, which families, and count each man one, by one, by one.
The message is that, amidst the dangers of the wilderness and war, we could not leave anyone behind, because every person’s name has been counted and recorded. By counting every man’s name, God and Moses showed that they cared about every man on an individual level.
When I think about this painstaking method of counting hundreds of thousands of men in the middle of the wilderness (without the use of calculators mind you), I think of how differently it contrasts with the way our society often talks about people currently wandering in the wilderness. Our ancestors wandering in the wilderness were immigrants striving for freedom, but so many immigrants coming to the United States for the same reasons are not count, their names are not recorded.
Our government does document approximately eleven million people living here without legal papers, and does not provide the same safety net accorded to citizens when one gets sick, or loses their job or is exploited by their neighbor. Instead, we too often call all immigrants “illegals,” too often confuse asylum seekers with undocumented immigrants and too often forget the millions of immigrants forced to live in the shadows.
For me, I think of Luis Lopez Acabal, one of the five million undocumented immigrants who will be receiving deferred action, and thus a temporary work permit, as the result of President Obama’s executive action on immigration. By remembering Luis’ individual story, and understanding how allowing him to come out of the shadows his family and community, we can better understand the relationships that so many immigrants have with their communities and the country as a whole.
As we read about the Israelite census this week, and continue to read about the Israelites’ journey through the wilderness in the Book of Numbers, let’s not forget about the millions of people here in the United States, still wandering for years in search of the proverbial “Promised Land.” Thousands of years ago, our ancestors recorded the names of each and every man in their midst; may we have the same wisdom to care about the lives of all immigrants who come here in search of freedom, safety and a better life.