Parashat BaMidbar 5772
The Ford Pinto was a subcompact car produced by the Ford Motor Company for the model years 1971–1980, during which time 2 million cars were manufactured. The Pinto was the brainchild of then Ford CEO, Lee Iacocca, who wanted this car to weigh less than 2000 pounds and cost less than $2000 to manufacture. In 1978, the Pinto was recalled over issues pertaining to the gas tank design. Apparently, if the Pinto were hit from behind, the car would explode upon impact. Originally, it is rumored, that when Iacocca heard of this flaw and discovered that its correction would raise the cost over $2000 and raise the car’s weight over 2000 pounds, he decided to calculate the difference between the cost of settling lawsuits and fixing the flaw. When it was discovered that the largest demographic of Pinto buyers was over 60, African American women, and that these women were not highly valued by courts and insurance companies, Iacocca decided not to fix the Pinto.
When I first heard this story, I was appalled. As an American, I always took seriously our Declaration of Independence when it states, quite emphatically, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”
As a Jew, I don’t have to read far into the Torah to understand that, “God created man in his image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.” It’s right there in Genesis one, verse twenty seven.
But last week, in Parshat B’Chokotai, Leviticus twenty seven, I read something very different. The text tells me that,
[T]he Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to the people of Israel, and say to them, ‘If a man shall make a special vow to give to the Lord the estimated value of persons, Then the estimation shall be: for a male from twenty years old to sixty years old, fifty shekels of silver, according to the shekel of the sanctuary. And if a female, then the estimation shall be thirty shekels.’”
Appalling? I’m not sure. It doesn’t exactly match my 21st century sensibilities, but, in context, the Torah can be seen as a progressive document. Just think about the daughters of Zelophchad, who we will also read about in BaMidbar, the book of the Torah we just started to read from. In this story, Moses petitions God for the right of these five women to inherit their father’s land despite their gender, and God agrees.
In Parshat BaMidbar, we get another sense of how the Torah counts humans. When God instructs Moses to take a census, he says,
Take a census of all the congregation of the people of Israel, by families, by the house of their fathers, according to the number of names, every male by their polls; From twenty years old and upward, all who are able to go forth to war in Israel; you and Aaron shall count them. (Bamidbar 1:2-3)
When I think about the entirety of examples of human value, whether they come from the Torah or from our modern society, I can make one clear conclusion; being counted is a function of purpose.
· The Torah tells us that every human is made in God’s image because the text aspires to sanctify human life.
· When God elevates Zelophchad’s daughters as worthy of inheriting their father’s land, He is trying to make justice.
· And when God instructs Moses to count the men over twenty, he is trying to build a strong army to protect his people.
In other words, we cannot generalize about the value of human beings from our texts because context is everything, and each example has a specific purpose.
So now let’s take this forward about three thousand years. Today we are writing new Jewish texts. We write them with our pens and we write them on our iPads. Most importantly, we write them with our deeds. So let’s examine some modern ways in which we count our people.
One area of progress is the Minyan. Today it is almost ubiquitous among liberal Jews to count women in a prayer quorum. In this dramatic change, we modern Jews have created justice just like God did for the daughters of Zelophchad. Likewise, we can say that the institution of Bat Mitzvah is a big step in equalizing the value of men and women in Jewish society. Unfortunately, however, the entire enterprise of bar and bat mitzvah and counting thirteen year olds as “adult Jews” has backfired. Instead of creating a stronger sense of Jewish commitment in adolescence, we have created a population that consider a seventh grade education adequate for adult Jewish living. I’m sure none of us would be amenable to this limited training if the subject were law or medicine, so you can understand why I am astonished by the acceptance of such an early terminal point in Jewish education.
In modern times, another area of counting is related to citizenship. Just like Parshat BaMidbar asks us to take a census, the American Constitution makes the same demand - every ten years. Now if we examine patterns of modern counting with the same lens as we did for the Bible, then we can assume the same conclusion; counting people is purposeful. Counting slaves in early America was for purposes of representation in Congress and for the distribution of taxes, thus, our foundational document is stained with the loathsome words of the Three-Fifths Compromise.
In the modern Israeli context, we haven’t even been able to achieve “loathsome” compromises. This is hard to say in a crowd of people who care deeply about Israel and have made great efforts to assure her existence as a democratic, Jewish country and a light onto the nations. Honestly, we can stand with Israel, right or wrong, or we can help her become the country we all hope that she can be. A country that reflects our particular values alongside our universal concerns for the world. The Israeli Declaration of Independence promises a constitution, “which shall be adopted by the Elected Constituent Assembly not later than the 1st October 1948.” Sixty Four years later, we still run our Jewish state without agreed upon guidelines. Some of you may know that Israel has a constitutional framework in its collection of “basic laws.” What you might not know is that a basic law is legislated in the same exact way as a law of the Knesset, by the same exact legislators. In practical terms, this means that there is no constitution for Israel because a governing coalition that doesn’t like a basic law can change that law with a simple majority. This is far from the checks and balances of American democracy. Israel may be the only democracy in the Middle East, but it is far from perfect, and it started with such promise.
The Israeli Declaration of Independence, a document that traveled with me in my wallet as I graduated agricultural high school near Tel Aviv and as I was drafted to the Israel Defense Forces during the first Lebanon War, was full of promise for a great society. Here is part of what the fledgling democracy promised to do.
it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants;
it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel;
it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex;
it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture;
it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and
it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.
Regarding non-Jewish citizens of the state, the Declaration has the following message.
WE APPEAL - in the very midst of the onslaught launched against us now for months - to the Arab inhabitants of the State of Israel to preserve peace and participate in the upbuilding of the State on the basis of full and equal citizenship and due representation in all its provisional and permanent institutions.
Israel hoped to be a country that fulfills the values expressed in the Bible.
Exodus 22:21, “Do not mistreat an alien or oppress him, for you were aliens in Egypt.”
Leviticus 19:34, “The alien living with you must be treated as one of your native-born. Love him as yourself, for you were aliens in Egypt. I am the LORD your God.”
Deuteronomy 23:7, ” Do not abhor an Edomite, for he is your brother. Do not abhor an Egyptian, because you lived as an alien in his country.”
Ezekiel 47:23, “In whatever tribe the alien settles, there you are to give him his inheritance," declares the Sovereign LORD.”
Unfortunately, it hasn’t lived up to the Biblical commandments or its own founding document.
· According to The Guardian, in 2006 just 5% of civil servants in Israel were Arabs despite the fact that Arab citizens of Israel comprise over 20% of the population.
· The New York Times reported, in February 2007, that 53 % of the impoverished families in Israel were Arabs. Since the majority of Arabs in Israel do not serve in the army, they are ineligible for many financial benefits such as scholarships and housing loans.
· Of the 40 towns in Israel with the highest unemployment rates, 36 are Arab towns.
· According to the Central Bank of Israel statistics for 2003, salary averages for Arab workers are 29% lower than for Jewish workers.
· Hebrew University's School of Education, in an August 2009 study, claimed that Israel's Education Ministry discriminated against Arabs in its allocations of special assistance for students from low socioeconomic backgrounds.
On a more human level;
· Dr. Ahmed Tibi, an Arab member of Knesset, has been physically attacked and had water thrown on him on the Knesset floor, but when he responded with a whimsical poem, members of the governing coalition called for his censure.
· My close friend Muchamad Darawshe, a senior executive at the Abraham Foundation, told me the horrors of experiencing the Second Lebanon War, in the Yezreel Valley below Nazareth, when the closest warnings of incoming missiles could only be heard from the neighboring Jewish villages and kibbutzim.
These are just some of the ways in which Israel does not count its Arab population as full citizens. But maybe the most appalling is the unstated, unofficial, yet consistent boycott of Arab parties from participation in a coalition government. Yes, we have an Arab on the Supreme Court, we have Arab deputy ministers and ambassadors and we have Arabs in Israeli Jewish parties, but even Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who made some of the grandest gestures toward the Arab citizenry of Israel, was unable to extend coalition agreements to Arab political parties, despite the fact that they stood by him as he made peace with Jordan and initiated the Oslo Peace Accords. This is a stain on Israeli democracy.
So today, as we start reading Bamidbar and read about the census, and tonight when we stay up to study and recall the giving of the Torah, we could respond to these problems in Israel by saying that ours is the only democracy in the Middle East, which it is, but what purpose does that serve?
Speaking as an Israeli and as a Jew, I want my country to hold itself to higher standards. Democracy is clearly not a panacea. Churchill has said that it “is the worst form of government except for all the others that have been tried.” But I want to believe that when God says, “You shall not follow a multitude to do evil, (ex.23:2)” His intention is to protect the interest of minorities and to serve justice. This is what I want for Israel, and as good as Israel may already be, I always strive to be better.