A strong foundation: week six of the Omer
Modah ani with floating rainbows

Kedushat Levi on the census as sacred study

This week's Torah portion, Bamidbar, speaks of a census taken by Moshe, a counting of the children of Israel in the wilderness of Sinai at God's command.

The Hasidic rabbi known as the Kedushat Levi (Reb Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev) has a beautiful teaching which has changed the way I view this census recounted in Torah. He writes:

The souls of Israel are the body of the Torah, because the community of Israel make up the six hundred thousand letters in the Torah. We find that Israel is the Torah, for the soul of each person in Israel is like a letter in the Torah.

We find that when Moshe took an accounting, he was studying the Torah [which is embodied in the community itself]: that is the real meaning of God's command.

This week in our lectionary we begin a new book of the Torah. In Hebrew this book is called Bamidbar, "In the Wilderness," but in English this book's name is "Numbers." And yes, there are a lot of numbers here. Reading the census which begins the book, one could be forgiven for finding the material somewhat dry, a counting of distant ancestors who -- if they ever had historical life at all -- lived ages ago.

But Kedushat Levi teaches us to see otherwise. The soul of each of us is a letter in the Torah. When we look out at our assembled community, we can read the Torah which is embodied in who we are. In us, Torah takes living form. And, it stands to reason, if we want the whole Torah (which we do), then we need to ensure that the whole community "counts" -- all of us, regardless of gender or sexual orientation, regardless of our politics, regardless of which denomination we call home.

The census wasn't just a matter of counting heads in order to form an army. It was Torah study of the deepest kind: reading the divine letter which is at the spark of each of person's soul, knowing that together they are something transcendent, more than the sum of their parts.