Fifty years ago, in 1969, I became a Bar Mitzvah at Temple Emanu-El, in Providence. Rabbi Eli Bohnen, Rabbi Joel Zaman and my dad, Cantor Ivan Perlman, officiated at my simcha on Shabbat parashat Bamidbar. I will never forget that day, and I will always be grateful to my amazing community and teachers.
In Bamidbar, Chapter 1, Verse 2, we read, “Take a census of the entire assembly of B’nai Yisrael ....”
Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch comments that the Jewish people are referred to as an eida, an assembly – a people unified by a common purpose. It was important that the people who share this common purpose be counted one by one.
On May 17, 1969, I was counted. And today, I continue to honor our teachers and those who lived before us as I have chosen to serve, to count, as I serve our Lord and his community.
But back to the parashah. Why a census? This accounting of the members of B’nai Yisrael who make up this eida, this assembly, accomplishes very important things. On the one hand, we instill the value of everyone on a nation. It reminds our leaders that the Jewish nation is not simply a blob or an impersonal mass, but rather it is critical to understanding that Am Yisroel Chi, this living People of Israel, is made up of distinct individuals; individuals who each count and who are each important in their own right.
Each person must take note of every loss or gain. When one is ill or dies, the entire nation is diminished and should mourn. When one is born, the entire nation is strengthened and should rejoice.
On the other hand, we must understand the awesome responsibility everyone has to the rest of B’nai Yisrael. We must accept our responsibility and the critical role that we each play as members of this special eida.
We should never consider ourselves as part of a mob. Each one of us is entrusted with an important role, and we are counted on and singled out to do our job.
We are all here to do the work of our Creator. We know what that work is since the Torah lists the mitzvot loud and clear. This unification of purpose is what makes us an eida.
To be sure, everyone wants to feel important. We each want to be recognized for something. We all want our eulogies to be positive and true. What Rabbi Hirsch is teaching us is that we are all very important people and that we must behave accordingly.
None of us should ever feel the need to say, “I could have been a contender,” because we are each important, and we each count. This week’s parashah wants us all to know that we should never, ever let anyone convince us otherwise.
In today’s world of instant news, we see all kinds of people doing all kinds of things in every news cycle. Compare that with what you and I do. We are doing important things too, but we are not in the news. We have all accomplished many important things in our lives, and many of those things may impact someone much more than anything those people in the news are doing.
What could be more important than touching the hand of a friend or loved one who is ill? What is more important than saying something encouraging to a friend or loved one who is depressed? What is more important than going out of our way to say Kaddish for a yahrtzeit or making a misheberakh for the sick?
What is more important than giving tzedakah to help fight disease, to help the poor eat and get clothing, to help schools teach, to help Israel survive, to help our synagogues continue to serve?
Doing these things is at the heart of being Jewish. As an eida, we lead the world in giving tzedakah. As the small minority that we are in the world, in many ways we have added more to the lives of the people on this planet than significantly larger groups. We do this because we know we are counted on to be responsible individuals.
We Jews are measured in a unique way. Last month in Israel, members of Hamas were once again portrayed as innocent angels as they shot hundreds of missiles into Israel. And what happened when Israel exercised its right to protect its citizens? Once again, Israel was portrayed as the devil for defending itself.
Yes, Jews are expected to do great things and to act a certain way – but then we are punished when we do.
As this week’s Torah reading teaches, each Jew is an important representative of our great people. We are the people who gave the world the notion of freedom; that all people are created equal; that each person is responsible for another. We are the set of individuals who first believed in one God. We are the individuals who were given the greatest gift the world has ever received, the gift of Torah.
My personal prayer is that all people can see us as the people we intend to be, a good loving people. This is what my teachers taught me when I was learning to become a member of the counted generations as a Bar Mitzvah. These are the teachings we continue to pass along to new generations.
Most of us are kind people, the kind of Jews who can and should hold our heads high and be proud to be counted.
I know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that most of us are always ready, willing and able to be counted on to do what Jews are supposed to do. For that, I want to wish each of you a very sincere yasher koach (good job); great strength and good health; and continued progress in doing what is just and right for all our people and for our beloved community.
RICHARD PERLMAN is the senior rabbi at Temple Ner Tamid, in Peabody, Massachusetts, a mashgiach representative at The Phyllis Siperstein Tamarisk Assisted Living Residence, in Warwick, and a member of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island.