Look into the eyes
Parshat Bamidbar, Numbers 1:1-4:20
It was quite an endeavor. Moses was commanded to count every male of Israel over the age of 20 who was able to serve in the army. He was some 82 years old and recently learned from his father-in-law that he should not be afraid to ask for help. So he finished his job with the following statistics: These were the men counted by Moses and Aaron and the 12 leaders of Israel, each one representing his family — the total number was 603,550. (Numbers 1:44ff.)
When we add the Levites, the women, the children and all those who could not serve in the army, we imagine some 1.2 million people. They were organized tribe by tribe, proudly standing under their tribal banners (much like the tribal banners hanging in the pool of the Squirrel Hill JCC). They were counted ancestral house by ancestral house, family by family, person by person.
All that counting of the generations past is reminiscent of the counting we have been going through as Americans. Whether your target number has been a red 1,237 or a blue 2,383 (or both or neither), you can’t help to avoid hearing about the counting, and you won’t be able to run away from it in the next six months. The thing about the counting in the Torah and the counting in America is that every person does count. We have seen that in our own Commonwealth, as our primary votes did make a difference this year, and now Pennsylvania is projected to be “in play” in November.
In the Torah, Moses was instructed to count with the Hebrew phrase “s’u et rosh” (“lift up the head”) of every Israelite to be counted. Moses himself (and those who helped him count) needed to look into the eyes of each citizen to see the humanity within as opposed to just counting numbers, as if the poll numbers had an existence of their own.
Isn’t that something? Moses was, and by extension we are, commanded to look our neighbors in the eye.
So, with hopes of emulating generations past, I recommend that we use this week’s Torah portion as a mandate to look into the eyes of the people behind the issues in Allegheny County: 7,315 children ages 3 and 4 in Allegheny County whose families earn less than $72,750 a year (that’s three times the poverty level for a family of four) do not have access to publicly funded, high-quality pre-kindergarten education (that’s 58 percent of all children in that category); 17,128 seniors over the age of 65 in Allegheny County are living in poverty (that’s 8.5 percent of the senior population); 36,889 people in Allegheny County report intimate partner abuse (that’s 19.2 percent of the 192,129 residents).
That’s 61,322 neighbors in need. It is so simple. Look into the eyes of our neighbors. Count them.
Be counted yourself. Be counted on to make a difference.
Rabbi Ron Symons is senior director of Jewish Life at the JCC of Greater Pittsburgh. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.