Finding Joy in Memory and Counting: Shabbat Bamidbar

Not one, not two, not three, not four, not five…This is how we count to make sure we have enough people for a minyan. Why? To avert the evil eye.

The musical Rent, in its song Seasons of Love, also talks about counting. How do we measure a year in the life of someone:

Five hundred twenty-five thousand
Six hundred minutes
Five hundred twenty-five thousand
Moments so dear
Five hundred twenty-five thousand
Six hundred minutes
How do you measure – measure a year?
In daylights – in sunsets
In midnights – in cups of coffee
In inches – in miles
In laughter – in strife

In – five hundred twenty-five thousand
Six hundred minutes
How do you measure
A year in the life

How about love?
How about love?
How about love?
Measure in love

Seasons of love
Seasons of love

Five hundred twenty-five thousand
Six hundred minutes
Five hundred twenty-five thousand
Journeys to plan

Five hundred twenty-five thousand
Six hundred minutes
How do you measure the life
Of a woman or a man?
In truths that she learned
Or in times that he cried
In bridges he burned
Or the way that she died
It’s time now – to sing out
Tho’ the story never ends
Let’s celebrate
Remember a year in the life of friends

Remember the love
Remember the love
Remember the love
Measure in love
Measure, measure your life in love

Seasons of love
Seasons of love

Today we begin the book Bamidbar, and we heard a wonderful d’var Torah last night about being between Mitzrayim, Egypt, the narrow place and Eretz Zavat Chalav, the Land flowing with milk and honey, the Promised Land. In between there is a great deal of wilderness, midbar. How we wander, how we navigate that wilderness, the desert, is the important part of the journey of life.

In English we call this book, the Book of Numbers. We start by counting. Taking a census. Everybody counted, well at least all the men over 20 who were eligible to serve in the military. Not the women, children, slaves, senior, disabled, the Levites. It begs us to ask the questions, “Whose here? Whose with us?”

It is an Interesting portion for this day, which is the beginning of Memorial Day Weekend.

People think they don’t count. “Rabbi, I’m not religious” they say in an apologetic tone. “I didn’t go to Hebrew School.” “I didn’t learn anything” “I don’t keep kosher.” “The mumbo jumble makes me uncomfortable.” “I am not sure I believe in G-d.”

And yet, we are told that there are 6000 Jews in the Fox River Valley. Jews that the federation is willing in count. And yet, we are told the demographics are changing. And yet, we are told how we think about joining, belonging, affiliating is changing. Even how we count is changing.

I’ve been thinking a lot about memory and counting.

In this portion, each of the tribes is counted, equally. And then as we will see next week, each tribe presents a gift to be used in the sacrificial system, to get the ball rolling. These are of equal weight, of equal value, and none diminishes the other. 750 shekels.

The Torah census is clear, there were 603,550 men prepared to fight. And that count is broken down by the tribes: Reuven, Shimon, Judah, Issachar, Zevulun, Naptali, Asher, Dan, Gad, Ephraim and Menashe. 12 tribes. Rabbi Irwin Huberman points out, “Each of those tribes had a unique path, a unique skill and destiny. Issachar was the scholar. Gad the warrior, Naptali the free spirit. Benjamin was ravenous. Zevulun was the business person. Dan the judge. Asher was prosperous. They were not, a homogenous nation. Rather it was a collection of tribes—each with its own communal personality.”

Each one making a difference in there own way. Each one finding their own meaning. Each one needed. Each one counting.

That’s true for us today. People come to the synagogue to find meaning. To find community. To find G-d. To be part of something bigger. To be counted. Each in their own way. Some come for the services. Some come for the music. Some come to hear the ancient words. Some come to hear the modern words. Some even come for the rabbi’s sermon or teaching.

Some come to see friends and catch up. Some come for the social action. Some come for the Torah School. Some come for the Sisterhood or the Men’s Club. And some come for the cookie. Yes, as a children’s book tells us, G-d loves cookies too.

Each one seems to be its own tribe, expressing its connection to G-d and the Jewish people through its own lens. Some people express spirituality through the arts, through social action, through volunteering. Some are philanthropists or scholars. Some are leaders. Some champion Israel. Some pride themselves on being Americans, and then may debate whether they are Jewish Americans or American Jews. Some are proud agnostics or atheists and some cannot understand how that is possible and still be Jewish. All have a place in the tent.

The truth is, each brings their own gift, their own unique skill. Their own passion. Just like the tribes we are reading about this morning. And the truth is we need them all. We need each and every one of them to be counted. To find their own meaning and place in this tradition.

In Finding Joy, the book we are reading for the Omer, we learn that happiness is found in finding meaning. “We can experience transcendent joy during our entire life when it is filled with what interests, excites, and involves us and brings a personal understanding of ourselves and what raises us to a mystical level of joy.” Frederick Buechner might have agreed since it is close to his own definition of call, ‘The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.’ That’s happiness. That’s standing up and being counted.

In one of the Psalms, Psalm 90 that we use mostly during the High Holidays because it exhorts us to return, to do teshuva, to recognize that our lives are short and that G-d is Eternal, we read,

The days of our years are threescore years and ten or even by reason of strength fourscore years.
Yet is their pride but travail and vanity.
For it is speedily gone and we fly away.
Who knows the power of Your anger and Your wrath according to the fear that is due to You?
So teach us to number our days, that we may get a heart of wisdom. Return, O Lord,

So teshuva in this Psalm is a two way street. We need to return, to come back, to repent,to do the hard work of reconciliation, and it seems G-d also needs to return. We sing something similar in Eitz Chayim Hee: Hashiveinu Adonai, Elecha V’nashuva, Chadesh, Chadesh Yameinu, Kederdem. Return to us O Lord and we shall return. Renew our days as of old.

The very first piece of Talmud I learned, was from Pirke Avot,

Rabbi Elieezer would say: Repent one day before your death. V’shuv yom echad lifnei miticha.

That begs another question, and the rabbis ask it. How do we know which is the day before we die? His answer is that we should return every day, today, for perhaps tomorrow we will die. (Talmud Shabbat 153a). And quoting Solomon in Ecclesiastes 9:8, “At all times your clothes should be white, and oil should be on your head ”

This was not because it was after Memorial Day, the unofficial start of summer and now we could wear white. No, rather, so we would be prepared to go to our grave.

So teaching us to number our days, to make them count, to be always aware that life is short—and that we don’t know how short, seemed particularly appropriate when I began to put this sermon together.

Teach us to number our days. We do that at this season of counting, as we continue to count the omer. Day 46. Almost to Sinai.

Merely to survive is not a measure of excellence or even a measure of cunning our High Holiday machzor teaches.

No, our job is to invest our lives with meaning. Our job is to return, to meet G-d.

I thought that was the end of the d’var Torah.

Then I had a rabbi moment.

I was asked to help design a gravestone for a former member. He died two years ago this month. He was a bachelor, leaving no children. His guardian, not Jewish but a good friend of the man, a real mensch, took care of all the arrangements for the burial. When I got the call two years ago for the burial plot I was told there would be no funeral since there was no family. I agreed to meet them out there. There should be some words. That’s what Jews do. 18 of us showed up. 18 of us were counted.

So now it is time to do the gravestone. What was his Hebrew name? There was no record of it. There was no record of him. But he had his mother’s gravestone picture and his fathers. I deduced a Hebrew name from that. So there will be a grave marker with a Hebrew name.

Pirke Avot also teaches in the name of R. Shimon: There are three crowons. The crown of Torah. The crown of priesthood and the crown of kingship. But the crown of a good name excels them all. (Pirke Avot 4:17)

Harry Rose, now has been restored, has been elevated, he now has the legacy of a good name—Areih ben Peninah. Harry Rose lived a quiet unassuming life right here in Elgin. He served in the Navy from 1950 to 1952. He returned. He worked for the post office. He played cards. He attended Men’s Club events. And now we remember. How appropriate this Memorial Day Weekend. We have memorialized him and we have counted him.

Archibald MacLeish wrote this poem:

The young dead soldiers do not speak.

Nevertheless, they are heard in the still houses:
who has not heard them?

They have a silence that speaks for them at night
and when the clock counts.

They say: We were young. We have died.
Remember us.

They say: We have done what we could
but until it is finished it is not done.

They say: We have given our lives but until it is finished
no one can know what our lives gave.

They say: Our deaths are not ours: they are yours,
they will mean what you make them.

They say: Whether our lives and our deaths were for
peace and a new hope or for nothing we cannot say,
it is you who must say this.

We leave you our deaths. Give them their meaning.
We were young, they say. We have died; remember us.

That’s the call of this Memorial Day. That’s the call of our lives. Stand up and be counted. Return one day before our deaths. Find meaning in our lives. Find joy. Find G-d.