On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah -- Ki Tisa: Stand Up and Be Counted

Stand up and be counted. In this parashah, a census is taken. To be counted, you must give half a shekel.  From this, we learn that while all must contribute to the community, each and every one of us is also individually important, both alone and as a member of the Jewish people.  Rabbi Jacobs focuses on this message, specifically discussing the  importance of the diversity of the Jewish community.

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[URJ Intro:] Welcome back to "On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah," a podcast presented by ReformJudaism.org. Each week, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the President of the Union for Reform Judaism, shares a little bit about the Torah portion in about 10 minutes or less. This week, Rabbi Jacobs teaches us about Parasha Ki Tisa. He asks who we are and who makes us up? And, if you don't mind giving me an extra minute this week, it's a perfect chance for me to tell you about a new podcast that we've just launched from ReformJudaism.org called "Wholly Jewish." It speaks to exactly the questions that Rabbi Jacobs talks about today. Hosted by April Baskin, our immediate past Vice-President of Audacious Hospitality, April is in conversation this season with our Jews of Color Cohort from our Jew'v'Nation Fellowship. They have fascinating conversations about who they are, who we are, and who we can all be together. Launching on February 19th, we hope that you'll listen for that podcast too. And now -- back to Rabbi Jacobs.

[Rabbi Rick:] This week we focus our attention on Parashat Ki Tisa from the Book of Exodus. Ki Tisa, literally from the word to raise up, tisa, right there in the Priestly Blessing, "Yisa Adonai panov eleichah. May God lift up God's countenance." And in the opening of the parashah, we have the instruction: "The Eternal spoke to Moses saying, When you take a census of the Israelite people according to their enrollment." The word census is when you lift up their heads, so there's already a way in which the Bible talks about a census as the lifting up of an individual's head. And then it goes on to say that everyone who's entered into the records of this census, it's a poll tax, it's a one time [thing]. You know, honestly, they are little too gender specific, they only want to count the men. But it's a tax where you give a half shekel. That's how you're counted. You don't raise your hand or like in today's world, someone knocks on your front door or calls you on the telephone, and you say, you know, yes I'm a resident of this city or this country. This was a counting that only happened if you gave your half shekel, and it's such a rich conversation -- no pun intended there! Don't think that was carefully constructed.

And I love the whole way in which our Jewish tradition wants to get inside [of] why the half shekel? Right, by the way, in Israel today, when you go pay for, you know, Coca-Cola, it's five shekels, right, so shekels is actually a biblical coin. It's also something we use today in contemporary Israel. So why a half shekel? Well, it goes into all the things that none of us -- Maimonides, in the 12th century, he's got one of the best ones. In the laws of Teshuva, he says "no Jewish person is an island." The only way to become whole is by associating, cooperating with, and contributing to other members of the Jewish community. A half shekel in and of itself is a partial unit of currency, but together -- oh together, it becomes something significant. So the beautiful teaching as each of us is less than whole unto a part of the larger community. I also love that you don't count until you give. So all of these frameworks really remind us it's not just counting the number of people, but who are the people who really count in a community? Who are the people who are ready to give, to do, to lead, to change, to inspire, and to be courageous?

I really am just head-over-heels crazy about one interpretation of the "Ki Tisa edrosh B'nei Yisrael" for "you shall lift up the heads of the children of Israel." It's a commentary from somebody who I think is pretty unknown. His name is Rabbi Meshulam Zusha. His dates are 1718 to 1800. He was a Hasidic master. And what does he interpret "Ki Tisa edrosh B'nei Yisrael" to mean? He says it means the way to lift up the heads of the people is to remind them often of their purpose in life. Their purpose is to heal and to repair and to make whole. Honestly, it doesn't get better than that. I want to -- I want to go meet him. My guess is since he's gone since 1800, I can't go meet him, but oh my goodness, does he have what really it means to count, right, to be reminded of our deeper purpose. And when we think of how many people in the Jewish community? Is the number going up, is going down? Who can we count on? How many of those in the Jewish community are in touch with their deeper purpose, that they know that being Jewish isn't an accident of one's birth? It's a deep set of commitments that we make in terms of Jewish life. We certainly know that demographic studies today are endlessly waking people up to danger and to demise, but also to possibility and and growth.

So let me, if I could turn from the half-shekel to the whole question of who counts in our Jewish community? I'm always amazed by the figure that Jews of color represent between 10 and 20 percent of the Jewish community. Let me just take that apart: In 2002, the Institute for Jewish and Community Research Study and the 2000 National Jewish Population Study found that little over 7 percent of America's then 6 million Jews say they are African-American, Asian, Latino/Hispanic, or Native American, or mixed race -- for a total of just under half a million four hundred [and] thirty five thousand. It goes on to say that in the 2000 studies, 120,000 Jewish adults live in the United States say they were born in Latin America, the Middle East, Asia, the Caribbean -- though not including in the Middle East [is] Israel. It is clear that the number of Jews of color is a growing percentage of our Jewish people, including that we often count the 600,000 Sephardic Jews, Jews from the Greater Mediterranean as opposed to the Ashkenazi Jews from Eastern Europe. That 10 percent of the Jewish population of North America are Sephardic Jews, so that's where you get the possibly of 20 percent. This is a huge slice of our Jewish community! So here you have a demographic study that tells us that there is not only potential for growth, but for expansion if we redefine how we understand who we are.

The other recent demographic study that thrills me is the one from Israel, from the Jewish People's Policy Institute, JPPI. Dan Pfefferman was the researcher, and he found demographically that 8 percent of Jewish Israelis identify as Reform Jews, 5 percent of Jewish Israelis identify as Conservative Jews. Together -- I can do that much math, probably that's the extent of my math -- that's 13 percent of Jewish Israelis who say that they are either Reform or Conservative. The total number of Ultra-Orthodox or Haredi Jews in Israel is only 10 percent. That growth, that demographic shift, that census-taking has shown us growth and strength and frankly an incredibly positive and compelling new sense of who we are both in Israel and here in North America.

So here's the work. You know the idea of having to contribute half a shekel to be counted in the Jewish community does kind of say that, there's no freebee. We talk about the wonderful Birthright [trip],which is paid for by philanthropists, by federations, by the government of Israel. Is this teaching from Exodus reminding us that there's no free way to be part of the Jewish community? No, I think it's saying something more profound. I think it's saying that every one of us counts, and we count especially when we give our unique talents, ideas, commitments, and bring our unique heritage -- whether that is from African-American, or Asian, or Middle Eastern, or from Latin America, that we bring the riches and we contribute that to the well-being and the strength of our people. And when we count our people that way, we have something very, very powerful. And we will always remember Rabbi Meshulam Zusha's teaching that the way you most powerfully count is when we are reminded and very clear about our purpose in life and as a member of this Jewish people. So let's grow in purpose and clarity. Let's grow in numbers. Let's grow in our diversity. And let's lift up everyone's head as we go forward into a brighter Jewish tomorrow.

[URJ Outro:] Thanks for joining us for this week's episode of "On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah." If you liked what you heard today, and we hope you did, you can find new episodes each week at ReformJudaism.org and on Apple Podcasts, where we would love for you to rate and review us. And you can visit ReformJudaism.org to learn more about all aspects of Judaism, including rituals, culture, holidays, and more. "On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah" is a project of the Union for Reform Judaism, a leading voice in the discussion of modern Jewish life.

Until next week -- l'hitraot!