Numbers 4:21 – 7:89
For as long as I can remember, we Jews have spoken about the importance of Tikkun Olam, of repairing the world. When we began to look at how broken the world is and worried that it was too much to handle, we (quoted the rabbis and) said, “We are not required to complete the task, but neither are we free to desist from it.” [Pirke Avot 2:16] And while historically, we have more often than not been among the most at-risk humans on the planet, recently we have enjoyed relative comfort and stability. This, in turn, has led some of us, perhaps many of us, to a place of disconnect, of not being sensitive to the brokenness around us and God’s call for us to be agents of healing, of repair.
Then COVID struck – and suddenly everyone was at risk together.
Except we weren’t. People of color were far more at risk than white people, because of the inequalities baked into our society.
Then the economy tanked – and everyone was at risk together. Except we weren’t.
Then George Floyd was murdered by officers who are supposed to serve and protect, and it was caught on video, and the nation saw, and the protests erupted, and the fires were lit, and our national leaders poured more violence into the mix, increasing the fissures of brokenness rather than finding paths towards healing.
And the pain, and the suffering, and the outrage, and the fear became unbearable, overwhelming. Our great nation is so broken, and we feel so helpless.
Yet we are not helpless, nor are we, by ourselves, the solution.
As I always do, when I need guidance and direction, I turn to Torah. This week’s portion, Naso, contains two separate teachings written for this moment. In the opening verse of the parasha, the Israelite census from the last portion is continued. However, the Hebrew for how we count is important – indeed, it is how this portion got its name:
“Naso et rosh – lift up the heads of the people of the Gershonites, too …” [Ex. 4:21-22]
Each time a tribe or clan of Israel was counted in the census, the phrase naso et rosh – lift up their heads, is invoked. Torah calls to us, despite everything, to lift up our heads, to know that we count, that even if we cannot fix all that is broken, we can still be agents of repair.
This is where the second teaching comes in:
“Should a man or a woman commit any of the human offenses (chatot ha’adam), to betray the trust of God, that person shall bear guilt. And they shall confess their offenses which they committed …” [Ex. 5:5-7]
The first step to lifting our heads and becoming agents of repair, is to look within, and to recognize our part, conscious or unconscious, large or small, active or passive, in supporting the status quo of brokenness. Even more, if we pay attention to the grammar in Torah, we can see that while the teaching starts in the singular, it moves to the plural “they.” From this the rabbis understood that creating a just society is not merely a matter of individual agency, but a collective responsibility. We are our brother’s keepers. The entire Torah exists to teach this lesson. When we ignore each other’s pain, or worse, intensify the suffering, we “betray the trust of God.”
In the June edition of the Atlantic, George Parker wrote:
“When the virus came here, it found a country with serious underlying conditions, and it exploited them ruthlessly. Chronic ills – a corrupt political class, a sclerotic bureaucracy, a heartless economy, a divided and distracted public – had gone untreated for years. We had learned to live, uncomfortably, with the symptoms. It took the scale and intimacy of a pandemic to expose their severity—to shock Americans with the recognition that we are in the high-risk category.”
Rabbi Ilana Grinblat, in responding to Parker’s statement, teaches:
“Indeed, we must confess the pre-existing conditions which have plagued humanity for centuries and threaten our democracy today – racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, xenophobia, transphobia, and ableism. These ills all boil down to thinking some lives matter more than others. We must rid our world of these toxins to prevail against Coronavirus and whatever other threats come our way.”
Let us look deeply within ourselves. Let us listen with humility and attention to those around us. Let us acknowledge our place in the world as it was before Coronavirus and let us choose how we will live in the world as is should be.
Then we can lift up our heads and know that our lives count.
 Parker, George. The Atlantic, “We are Living in a Failed State,” June 2020.
Hi there! I am the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, Maryland, where I have served since 2016.
(c) copyright 2018 by Rabbi Gary Pokras