Dvar Torah: March 21st 2009: Parashat Pekudei
Ora Nitkin-Kaner at Cong. Shir Chadash
Two days ago, nola.com featured the following headline: “New Orleans population tops 300,000 for first time since Katrina”. This is welcome news – news to be celebrated, particularly in a city that is still struggling to shake off the dust and debris of the disaster. The news article went on to say that many census officials plan to challenge this estimate of 300,000; in fact, some believe that there may be as many as 445,000 people currently living in New Orleans. The reason offered for the inaccuracy was that the Census Bureau primarily uses IRS data to estimate population size. In places where there is a large number of poor people who don’t file tax returns, many residents, wrote the reporter, may go uncounted.
This concern with counting and numbering is also addressed in one of this week’s torah portions. In parashat Pekudei, the Torah details the exact amounts of precious metals used to build the mishkan, or tabernacle. Pekudei is the final Torah portion in the book of Exodus – a book that chronicles the wanderings of the Israelites in the desert. So we have to ask: if the Jewish people were in the desert, where did all these precious metals come from? According to the parasha, the silver for the mishkan was supplied by the half-shekels contributed by each Jew who “went to be numbered”: that is, 603,550 men of draftable age, each giving half a shekel. The amassed silver was used to make the 100 foundation sockets that held up the mishkan’s walls.
Parashat Pekudei is concerned with all details of the mishkan, from the priestly tunics of blue linen to the bells of gold decorating the tabernacle. The parasha is so consumed with counting individual details that, according to Maimonides, it doesn’t contain a single commandment.
So: What are we meant to learn from this lack of mitzvot?
In a parashah that contains no divinely commanded obligations, we have two options: we can consider the parshah as a collection of details that are no longer relevant to our lives, since the temple and the mishkan were destroyed 2,000 years ago. Or, we can look deeper into the parasha to find what messages are hidden there.
In Pekudei, we are told that each person contributed silver to the building of the mishkan. And when the mishkan was finished, a cloud covered it and the “glory of God filled the tabernacle”. In other words, this week’s torah portion gives the details of how each Israelite gave of himself to create a dwelling place for god. This is an amazing and unusual thing to do – to give away a portion of what you have to create a resting place for the divine. Is it possible for us to emulate this? We can’t rebuild the mishkan in these modern times. But we can ask ourselves: In our day and age, what does it mean to give of oneself to create a space for holiness? In what ways do we give?
Maybe we attend mitzvah days at synagogue, maybe we teach our children about tzedakah. Perhaps we give mishloah manot on Purim, or invite strangers in our community to eat with us on Passover. These are good things, necessary things – they are meaningful and important ways in which to give. But, returning to the basic theme of the parasha – that is, counting: in what ways do we count?
There are 3 ways to count; three meanings to the verb ‘count’. We can count to sum up, to create a tally of objects or of people. We can count ourselves in – to include ourselves in groups, and maybe to exclude others. And finally, we can count; we can make sure that what we do counts; that is, we can matter and our actions can matter.
Thank God, all of us here in this room can do the first: we can count our blessings, count our earnings, count our parents and friends and children and grandchildren and reflect on all the things we have. And we can also count ourselves in a group – a group of Jews who live in this wonderful, frustrating, beautiful, and ridiculous city. But sometimes, as Jews, we end up discounting non-Jews, or people who live and work outside our own circles. We count ourselves into groups of people like us, and, perhaps without meaning to, keep out those unlike us.
As a Jew from Toronto, I had the opportunity this year to move down to New Orleans to participate in Avodah: the Jewish Service Corps. The nine members of Avodah have formed our own group - a group of twenty-something Jews working in non-profits around the city and exploring issues of social justice. And our small group has been welcomed into the larger Jewish community - your community - with amazing warmth and generosity.
As members of Avodah, we strive to make ourselves count. We try to make our voices count, to lend our work and our words to people who have been rendered voiceless by their skin colour or their educational opportunities or a prison system whose focus is incarceration, rather than rehabilitation. Because we, as Avodah participants, have been so welcomed into your community, I feel comfortable enough, on this shabbat of counting, to ask you to count yourselves in with us. Let’s count ourselves as people who matter; as people who see the potential for beauty in New Orleans and want to work towards it. Let’s count ourselves in with other community groups and members of New Orleans who want true change and justice for all of this city’s inhabitants, be they 300,000 or 445,000. Let’s make what we do, who we are, and who we are growing to be count.
At the conclusion of each of the Torah’s five books, it is traditional to rise and say ‘chazak chazak venitchazek’ - that is, may we be strong, remain strong, and be strengthened. On this shabbat, then, may we all grow in strength and continue to count.