May 19, 2023
Each and Every Letter
This transcript was edited and formatted by a third party and may vary from the live sermon delivered at Shabbat.
"Each and Every Letter"
Rabbi Rebecca Rosenthal
For the last five years or so, my husband has been reading the U.S. census. He’s a historian and working on a project that requires him to find individuals living in the period after the Civil War. These people are not famous, and so the only place to go to find them is the census. He sits in libraries and in archives, reading pages and pages of the census, looking for one particular name, a person who will help him move forward on his project.
You might say to yourself, Who but a historian would spend their time reading the census? The answer is, all of you here and in Jewish communities around the world. This week’s parashah, Bamidbar, opens with a census. And not just reporting that a census has occurred, but tremendous detail about the census—46 verses to be exact—that go into the different people that make up the tribes of Israel.
You may wonder, Why? I’ve seen a sofer, a Torah scribe, do their work, and the painstaking detail, thought, and intention that goes into writing each letter. And each word reminds me that every piece of the Torah is important, and carries meaning. If we weren’t meant to learn from it, it wouldn’t be included. So the seemly endless repetition on this many people in this tribe, and this many people in that tribe, well, it must have a purpose.
As you will hear tomorrow if you tune in for the bat mitzvah, sometimes the census is more about who isn’t counted than who is, but I will leave that Torah for Ilana. Instead, I want to take a moment to think about why the Torah spends so much time and space on this census, at this moment.
In Rabbi Shai Held’s book, The Heart of Torah, he reports a kabbalistic teaching that the number of people counted in the census is roughly the same number of letters in the Torah. The teaching says, “The souls of the Israelites originated in the letters of the Torah and the spirituality of the Torah consists of those souls. All subsequent generations of the Jewish community are branches of those original six hundred thousand souls.”
In other words, every single person, represented by every single letter, matters. While by the numbers this may not be strictly, exactly true, the message stands that without even one letter, there is no Torah. Without even one person, the community is not as it should be. Every letter brings something unique and essential to the conversation.
I don’t know if you got a chance to see the photos shared on Central’s social media this week about one of our Torah scrolls that is being repaired. Unlike more modern Torah scrolls, where the script has been standardized, this Torah scroll has ornate and decorative letters in different places in the scroll, indicative of the scribe and his location. Those letters illustrate this point even more clearly, that every letter is important, and every letter is unique, even if one aleph looks like the next.
And this idea is fundamental to who we are as Jews. We read in the very first chapter of the very first book of the Torah that each person is created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God. That means that every human being is created with infinite uniqueness and infinite worth. What would the world look like if we lived that way? What would the world be like if we saw the humanity of a man on the subway, screaming about his suffering for all to hear? What would it be like if we acted on the idea that children’s lives are worth more than guns? What would the world look like if we valued a person for more than their womb, or how much money they make, or how productive they can be? What if we understood that our uniqueness is what makes us holy, not frightening, and made strides to understand one another? I’m not saying it would be easy, but it would be holy work. It would be the work of creating a Torah together, of building something so unbreakable that thousands of years later, people still tell our story.
Every Tuesday night for the last nine months, Rabbi Lorge and I have gathered with our confirmation students to probe the questions of Who are you? What is your task? Why are you here? Through study and conversation and just being together, here, in their own words, is some of what emerged:
What amazes me is that I am only one person out of over 8 billion on this Earth. I am a mere speck when compared to the population of our planet. But to my friends and family, I am not just a speck; I am a large part of their lives; hopefully one that brings them joy.
The world has never been whole, but we can make it better, and I believe that my task on this Earth is to hopefully make people happy and hopefully make more peace within the world.
Understanding one's identity is no easy task; and perhaps in my life, I will never be able to grasp the full potential of my identity. Still, I know that my experience in confirmation class has pushed me closer to my self-understanding. Confirmation class has allowed me to continue to discover a major part of my identity that I value highly in my life: Judaism. Judaism and Jewish culture are rich and diverse, and having this opportunity to continue to understand how my Jewish identity is integrated into my life is something that I am truly grateful for.
I am also just a person, a person trying to do my best and be my best, while existing not solely as an individual, but as a member of a broader community and world. It is extremely daunting to conceptualize it in that way, but it is the truth.
My task right here, right now, is to embrace my differences amongst this group and make this community stronger.
The questions Rabbi Lorge and I ask are both individual and collective, asking our students to figure out who they are, what they bring to our group, and also asking them to grapple with their many identities. Our guide on our trip to Berlin asked them to finish the sentence, “Jewish and….” And you can imagine the varied responses we got to that question. Jewish and a woman, Jewish and a softball player, Jewish and a friend, Jewish and a New Yorker, and, and, and. Confirmation is truly about a group of individuals, with disparate identities, coming together to form a group, to figure out their Torah, to understand what the class of 5783 has to bring to the world.
If you come to Shavuot services on Thursday night, you can read and hear the Torah that lives within these 13 students, individuals but very much a community, each one vital to ensuring both a strong class community and a strong Jewish future. Some of them came to this class after a lifetime at Central, and some much more recently. Some came willingly, even eagerly, while others came at the arm-twisting of parents. Some came as friends, and some came as outsiders to our group. But each one brought something that we counted on each week. Each one brought their own gifts, their own Torah, their own letter in the scroll, their own ideas, values, and passions. And counting them, knowing them, is a privilege.