What Counts? – A tribute to Israel
Part of a yearlong series about resilience in Jewish spiritual life.
I just returned from two weeks in Israel, in the days preceding the 70th anniversary of the founding of the State of Israel on May 14, 1948. The country felt consumed by this momentous occasion – recounting Israel’s history, counting Israel’s blessings, and counting on the future to bring both immense blessings and wrenching challenges.
Most historians agree that Israel’s resilience – as a people, as a nation and as a modern state – has few equals. Israel’s resilience formula has been a rarefied combination of diversity, daring, desire and duty. Israel has prevailed not in luxury but in necessity, at risk of annihilation. And when Israel has faltered, often it’s because Israel fell out of sync with her core values.
So this week’s Torah portion coinciding with the 70th anniversary of the State of Israel’s founding (Numbers / Bamidbar) begins with especially poignant words: “Take a census of the whole community of the children of Israel” (Num. 1:2). Count their numbers and recount what they’re about, all of them – no matter who they are or where they are or how they are. Take stock. Really take stock. Leave nobody out.
But Torah, being Torah, hides a message within this message. Torah doesn’t quite say to count them numerically. Instead, Torah uses euphemistic language: in Hebrew, s’u et rosh – literally, “lift the head.” This kind of counting isn’t about marks on a ledger, but about lifting people up.
That’s the meaning we traditionally attribute to Psalm 24:7, which uses these same words: “Lift up your heads, oh gates, and be lifted up, you everlasting doors – and the King of Glory will come in!” Handel’s Messiah early segments famously begin with exactly those words.
Israel’s resilience lesson to the world is about lifting people up. Lifted up, people are capable of incredible daring, compassion, creativity, industry, courage and beauty. Pushed down or kept down, people are capable of incredible fear, hate, ugliness and destruction. Israel has experienced both. Which ones will win Israel’s future – and the future of the world – is up to all of us.
I want to believe, in the words of Psalm 24:7, that if we truly lift people up, the One we call the God of Glory will come in. May Israel help lead the world in fulfilling that resilience promise for us and all our descendants. Especially this week, let that be what counts most.
Originally published at The Jewish Studio.