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"It is what it is" - Not #729

06/03/2022 04:34:26 PM


Rabbi Irwin Huberman

“Moses, tell the entire Israelite community to ‘lift their heads.’” Bamidbar 1:2“

"It is What It Is" - Not

There were two unique phrases that made me shake my head when I first arrived in the New York area. 

They were often used when someone concluded that it was impossible to fight against the bureaucracy - an overcharge on a bill, a meter reading that didn’t seem right, a rule or a fee imposed by the city or state.

Those phrases were:

“It is what it is.” and “What are you gonna do?”

Those seemingly innocuous phrases unsettled me because they revealed a sense of hopelessness - a willingness to normalize even the most minor injustice. 

Most of all, they confirmed my worst fear that within the context of the more than 330 million people living in the United States: We - as individuals - don’t matter.

But every now and then, the Torah takes an extraordinary step to remind us, through its ancient lens, that we do count and, more importantly, that - we make a difference.

At the beginning of this week’s Torah portion - Numbers - God commands Moses to initiate a national census and calculate how many Israelite men over age 20 would be available to serve in an army.

Each Israelite was encouraged to contribute a half shekel to mark their formal participation.

Studying this commandment over the centuries, our Sages have often posed an important question: If God is so almighty, why did God need Moses to engage in such a labor-intensive exercise?

The answer, according to many ancient scholars, is God wanted everyone to be reminded that even during their desert wanderings, they - as individual human beings - counted.

Indeed, each of us possesses a skill, a trait and a mission, which only we can complete. It’s what makes each of us unique and significant.

Our Sages focus on the word, s’eu. Most bibles interpret the “s’eu commandment” as “Moses. take a census of the Israelite community.” But perhaps a more accurate translation is, “Moses, tell the entire Israelite community to ‘lift their heads.’”

Can we relate? Whenever we hear of another mass shooting, or observe atrocities committed in Ukraine, it is easy to lower our heads and say, “What are you gonna do?”

Is this attitude any different from the Israelites living in the parched desert - devoid of luxury and physical pleasure - being tempted to lower their heads and declare, “It is what it is."

A story told in the Midrash - our ancient collection of legends and narratives - compares God to a merchant who owns a store stocked with precious jewels. 

From time to time, this owner would take pleasure in the beauty of each gem, also ensuring that each was placed in a position of honor.

This is how many Sages imagined the census’ higher purpose: God wanted to relish in the beauty of every soul, and wanted every person to feel the same.

Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev (1740-1809) once noted, that the final total of 603,550 men counted in the census was comparable to the hundreds of thousands of letters of the Torah.

And just as the absence of one damaged letter makes a Torah incomplete, the loss of even one Jewish person prevents Israel from fulfilling its divine mission – to collectively work with God to heal this broken world.

This is a significant concept as we enter the holiday of Shavuot - a time when we commemorate the giving of the Torah to the Jewish people.

In 2009, the summer before I was ordained, I spent a few weeks studying at the University of Haifa.

That was the summer where just a few miles north, three Israelite soldiers were abducted by terrorists. Subsequently, the entire country went to war with Hezbollah to secure their return. 

Indeed, within Israel and the wider Jewish world, we follow a core value that no one is left behind.

And that includes, in modern times, those who have often been excluded - women, members of the LGBTQ community, those with physical and cognitive challenges, among many others.

It is why, perhaps, that we as a people resist the instinct to count heads when Jews assemble. The Nazis attempted to take away our names and reduce us to numbers. 

But we fought back, raised our heads and proclaimed, “We are individuals, never a number.”

With great pride, for the first time in 15 years, I recently voted in an election. As a newly minted American citizen, I entered a polling station, “lifted my head” and participated in the local school board elections.

It was a small election, but the act of contributing my half shekel filled me with purpose.

Meanwhile, just north of Toronto, our daughter recently completed her stint as a volunteer, working in the Ontario provincial election.

Many decades ago, as a journalist in northern Canada intent on not letting any bias affect my reporting, I encouraged our daughters to join me when I attended candidate debates.

When it came time to vote, I handed them a pencil and encouraged them - at age 9 and 12 - to “x” the candidate of their choice in their notebooks.

“Thanks for instilling these values in me at a young age – that my voice matters,” Jesse recently recalled.

It is the message radiating from this week’s Torah portion: During dark times, we may be inclined to lose hope, but the Torah arrests this impulse and reminds us that every voice deserves to be heard.

It also sends a message that each of us is precious, and that every one of us has something unique to contribute.

We are in a period of significant political debate - and as people locally and around the world extend their hands to us in need - we must replace the phrase, “What are you gonna do?” with something more meaningful and effective.

This week’s Torah portion reminds us that the term, “It is what it is,” significantly limits us.

Rather, as the Torah teaches this week, especially as we navigate challenging times, we need to raise our heads, be counted and declare, “It is what we make it.”

Shabbat shalom, v’kol tuv.

Rabbi Irwin Huberman


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