Who stood at Sinai? Who was counted in the desert?

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By Rabbi Jennifer Weiner

This week’s Torah portion is Bamidbar, Numbers 1:1 – 4:20.


This week, we will read Parshat Bamidbar on Shabbat morning and we will also celebrate Erev Shavuot on Saturday night.

Our Torah portion begins, “Take a census of the whole Israelite community by the clans of its ancestral houses, listing the names, every male, head by head. You and Aaron shall record them by their groups, from the age of 20 years up, all those in Israel able to bear arms” (Numbers 1:2-3).

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Shavuot is also about being counted, but in a different manner. On Shavuot, we celebrate the receiving of Torah at Mount Sinai. We reenact Moses bringing the Torah of God to the Children of Israel at the bottom of the mountain. We are taught in midrash, traditional legends, that all the souls of the Children of Israel were present at that time, past, present and future, including those who would convert to Judaism.

Poet Merle Feld wrote a poem called “We All Stood Together.” In it, the woman states that she and her brother had very different experiences due to the different expectations of gender roles in Torah.


My brother is so sure of what he heard

After all he’s got a record of it

Consonant after consonant after
consonant

If we remembered it together

We could recreate holy time

Today, there are still many times when roles are assigned because of gender. Shavuot teaches that we are to stand up and accept the responsibility of the mitzvot, the commandments, of Torah. Some of those mitzvot are gender biased, in that only one of the many genders of our community may fulfill them.

Why should there be divisions of duties due to gender differences? Torah teaches us that each person is B’tzelem Elohim, created in the image of God. If one wishes to observe and fulfill a commandment or to hold a particular job then that individual should be allowed to do so and be celebrated for their choice.

Thus, as we prepare to enter the the midbar, the desert, we once again stand at the foot of Mount Sinai in anticipation of receiving the Torah. Perhaps the message behind counting the individuals is to demonstrate that each one counts. Not only that, each individual has the obligation to stand up and be counted. Each member of our community is important and should be welcomed regardless of gender to create a warm and inviting community; an individual should be made to feel of value. By forming a relationship and finding out what an individual is interested in or skilled at and use the talents of that person, our community is strengthened.

Rabbi Jennifer Weiner is rabbi of Beth Sholom Temple in Fredericksburg and confirmation program director at Beth El Hebrew Congregation in Alexandria.

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