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Lift Up His Head

Friday, 5 June, 2020 - 10:27 am

In a meeting with a Jewish leader the Lubavitcher Rebbe once pointed out the irony that the Israeli government spends tens of thousands of dollars to enable someone to make Aliya, but refuses to invest smaller amounts to incentivize its own citizens to have children.

This leader countered that the Israeli government should not offer per-child stipends because that would also encourage Arab families to have more children, creating a demographic disadvantage to the Jewish state.

Sounds like a significant political quandary, doesn’t it? What would you say?

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We’ll get back to that momentarily. But, first, let’s have a look at this week’s parsha, Naso.

The word Naso means to “lift up.” It is a figure of speech in the Torah, indicating the instruction to count the Jewish people. More specifically, this command was to count the three families in the tribe of Levi. And, it follows the long census recorded in last week’s parsha Bamidbar.

So, why the detailed census? And, why is it not called counting, but rather “lifting up”?

Interestingly, first the families and then the tribes were tallied. It was insufficient to simply discover the sum of all Jewish people. Each family and tribe had to have its own count. Levi, a tribe called upon to serve in the Holy Temple, was counted apart from the rest of the people.

To understand this properly, we need to appreciate the advantage – and disadvantage – of counting. Counting is the great equalizer. As we say in America, one person, one vote. An oligarch’s vote is no more weighty than a homeless man’s.

On the other hand, counting people telegraphs that a person is simply a number. Jews, having recently experienced the indignity and dehumanization of being tattooed in Treblinka and Auschwitz with mere numbers, are very sensitive to the dangers of being deemed a digit.

This is the beauty of the Torah’s view on counting. It’s critical that we remember that each person counts. But, recognizing the hazard that counting has the potential to reduce a person to a statistic, the Torah insists on identifying families and tribes. The Torah is reminding us that each person has an absolutely unique mission.

This is the meaning of Naso – to lift up. Counting is a dangerous art. In order to ensure it is done properly we must view it as lifting up. It cannot, in any way, demote a person’s unique value.

Rather than pressing a knee down, we must life a head up.

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Back to the Rebbe’s dialogue about Israel’s birth rate.

The Rebbe’s response to this issue might surprise you. The Rebbe insisted that the Israeli government should be offering stipends to both Jewish and Arab families. Anything less would be discriminatory.

As to the argument that this would be disadvantageous to the Jewish demographics in Israel, the Rebbe replied that all human beings were placed on this earth with the Divine instruction to procreate and inhabit this world.  If so, nothing negative can come out of such a proposal. Because, inherently, there is nothing negative about such a proposal.

To the Rebbe, there is no us and them. We are all human beings with a G-dly mission. If G-d has designed this world with different types of people, and wants them all to inhabit it, that means each person is both integral and irreplaceable.

The Rebbe did not pay lip service to the concept of avoiding racism. The Rebbe, one of the most influential Jews in the world, advocated that Arab families should have more children! At the same time, the Rebbe was a staunch supporter that the land of Israel should remain a Jewish land.

These ideals can only be properly understood if we remove any vestige of seeing others as less significant than ourselves.

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As our country struggles with the open wounds of George Floyd’s tragic and unjust death, it’s incumbent upon us to draw strength and clarity from the Torah.

The Talmud offers a poignant parable to help us understand that every person is created in G-d’s image.

It is comparable to two brothers who were twins and lived in the same city. One was appointed king, while the other went out to engage in banditry. The king commanded that his brother be punished, and they hanged his twin brother for his crimes. Anyone who saw the bandit hanging would say: The king was hanged. The king, therefore, commanded that his brother be taken down, and they took the bandit down. Similarly, people are created in G-d’s image.

When one person is murdered, when one life is cut short, regardless of that person’s character, race or religion – G-d Himself has been murdered.

Obviously, G-d is spiritual and continues to live eternally. But, G-d’s irreplaceable embodiment in this world – with a unique mission no one else can accomplish – has been erased.

A human life is not only priceless. It is not only of infinite value. It is irreplaceable.

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David Dinkins, the black mayor of New York, came to visit the Rebbe in the aftermath of the Crown Heights riots. He suggested the black and Jewish communities work together. the Rebbe responded that essentially there are not two sides. Rather, there is one side, one people.

I am not black and may never understand what it means to be black.

Obviously, G-d doesn’t expect that of me. Otherwise, I would have been born black.

But, G-d does expect something of me as I live through all this turmoil.

All the suffering, confusion and damage of the past week cannot be allowed to be for naught.

If I am to transform these events into a personal catalyst for good, slogans won’t be enough. I will need to internalize the paradigm shift of truly considering every human being G-d’s special agent in this world.

Then, I will have done my small part in ensuring that George Floyd’s life was not for naught – that G-d’s mission continues to be fulfilled through his life – and even beyond it. He may no longer be alive, but we can still lift his head.

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