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Rabbi Deborah Blausten

Shabbat Bamidbar 5782

You can listen to Rabbi Deborah's sermon here or read below.

Taking part in a census can be pretty boring- sorry to any demographers in the shul this morning- but you aren’t allowed to refuse. In the UK you can be taken to court if you do so. There’s even a fine of a £1000 waiting for anyone who actively chooses not to participate. 

While this may be as much of a showdown as you’ll get in 2022, the text of this morning’s portion is perhaps concealing a moment of quite high drama, and an essential transformation in a community dynamic. 

There’s a clue to the drama right at the start of the parasha:

מִבֶּן עֶשְׂרִים שָׁנָה וָמַעְלָה כּל־יֹצֵא צָבָא בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל תִּפְקְדוּ אֹתָם לְצִבְאֹתָם אַתָּה וְאַהֲרֹן׃
You and Aaron shall record them by their groups, from the age of twenty years up, all those in Israel who are able to bear arms.

וְאִתְּכֶם יִהְיוּ אִישׁ אִישׁ לַמַּטֶּה אִישׁ רֹאשׁ לְבֵית־אֲבֹתָיו הוּא׃
Associated with you shall be a participant from each tribe, each one the head of his ancestral house.

Who were these participants? They were, according to the midrashic imagination, volunteers, and the volunteers were a perhaps surprising group of people. They weren’t the biblical equivalent of the uni students who stand on the street asking you to fill in surveys, they were the chiefs of each tribe. 

Imagine this:

You’re from the generation that left Egypt- it’s 13 months since you crossed the sea, and it’s a pretty complicated dynamic in the community. First, there’s Moses and Aaron, they’re in charge it seems, Aaron's tribe the Levites get all of the responsibilities and privileges of service in the tabernacle (including the free food), everyone else also has their roles and their places. 


But the people you have an issue with aren’t Moses and Aaron, you might complain but ultimately it was they who brought you to freedom. The people you have an issue with are the chieftains- because of the role they played in Egypt. They were the overseers of the Israelites work when they were slaves, they were ‘agents of the regime’. 

And then, it’s them who is there to carry out the census on behalf of the community?

A midrash in the 17th century kabbalistic compilation Yalkut Reuveni explains that it was because of their regrets about their behaviour in Egypt that the chieftains volunteered.  And this can explain why the census was so vital.


Rabbi David Greenstein writes about this moment (from the essay Bamidbar in Torah Queeries), he says: 

“The census was not simply an act of recognition bestowed by the princes of Israel on those who were enumerated. The act of recognition worked both ways. As each able-bodied man, who had formerly been pressed into slavery by these very officials, passed, one by one, before them, those who were doing the counting were also recognized for who they were and what they had done. 

By facing their brothers, whom they had helped to enslave and oppress just a short time ago, the chieftains and the people they counted were pushed into a process of “truth and reconciliation.” Such a process was, from an outsider’s perspective, a boring, bothersome, and bureaucratic headache. It is not very exciting to read. But, from the inside, one must imagine the electricity in the air as each person came before his chieftain, his erstwhile oppressor, looked him in the eye, and compelled that official to count him and recognize him as a brother. The Torah seems to suggest that without that quiet drama the Children of Israel would never have been able to take a single step forward through the wilderness”


I think it’s pretty remarkable, these men who had been instrumental in the apparatus of slavery, the accomplices and facilitators of constant dehumanization, they knew that the community’s healing would only come when they looked each person in the eye, and saw them as a full equal, counted them as someone who mattered. 


When Brene Brown talks about leadership she describes people who have power over others. Those people who 'believe that power is finite and use fear to protect and hoard power'. People who 'leverage fear to divide, destabilize and devalue decency'. People who 'maintain power over by demonstrating an ever-increasing capacity for cruelty, including shaming and bullying- especially toward vulnerable populations'. 

This is the system within which the chieftains existed previously. It’s a hierarchy, you are protected from oppression by becoming part of the system that oppresses others. When you are in charge, when you have power over others, you pass the dehumanisation down the social pyramid. It’s the school bully’s accomplice, it’s the quiet collaborator, it’s present in all systems that are built around the idea that only a few matter, and everyone else is there to serve their needs. 

Then there’s those who lead from a position of power WITH others. They understand their power becomes infinite, that it grows, when it is shared with others not exercised over them. Brene Brown says that people who hold power together with others leverage connection and  empathy to unite and stabilize. They value decency as a function of self-respect and respect for others. The strength of a group is not limited by the ability of it’s leader and their tyrannical hold on others, it’s instead made up of the combined power of all of the individuals, and it can continually expand and grow.

(See below for a comparison table from Brene Brown's work Dare to Lead)

Reading the midrash on this moment of census, of this ritual of transformative seeing, of mutual recognition and truth telling, seems to me like a shift in the dynamics of power in the camp as the Israelites continue their process of shaking off the legacy of slavery. When the chieftains move from power over their tribes, to power with them, it is part of a journey of undoing, of unlearning the ways of the slavemasters. 

Everything about setting up of the tabernacle that we read in parashat Bamidbar involves a required interdependence- even within the priesthood the Levites who are given the most sacred tasks are not allowed to look at the holy objects. Even they are reminded that it can't just be all them. There has to be a reorganizing, from power that is derived from oppression/suppression and fear, to power that comes from the collective, from the seeing of others. The model is one of servant leadership, where the leaders are there to serve others rather than tell others how to serve them. That’s the journey Torah is constantly taking us on, freedom is choosing to use your power to serve rather than to force others to serve you. It’s not about making yourself the sole exception within the system- there’s a role for everyone. 

In Egypt the chieftain’s power was by collaborating with a system that was built on others feeling small, on others being powerless. On the journey to the promised land they are learning that true power doesn’t come from how much bigger or more important you can make yourself than others, but on the power you can help others unlock in themselves.

For me the question this leaves us with, is what enabled the chieftains to change? What helped them allow their regret to emerge, and then what allowed them to feel able to show it. That seems like quite a remarkable bit, because it requires them to make themselves accountable, vulnerable, and fully subject to the judgement of others for the way they behaved. I wonder if it’s not just the absence of Pharaoh, but the knowledge that if you hold power through fear or distance, that it’s a fantasy, that you aren’t really a leader by consent, you are just able to sequester power, people are scared of you or can’t reach you. The whole process of covenanting tells us that law isn’t something that is imposed from the top onto others, it’s a mutual understanding of our responsibilities to each other- that’s the paradigm of Torah- the work is for everyone, not for some to do at the bequest of others. 

To free themselves from their inner Pharaoh the chieftains had to allow themselves to be seen fully for what they had done, express remorse and mean it, and follow that remorse by changing the paradigm- learning that leadership that creates change is when we use our power to serve others. 



Sun, 26 June 2022 27 Sivan 5782