Rabbi Shaya's Thoughts

Make Your Number Count

Recently, the head of the U.S. Census Bureau resigned from his job. This act brought the methods employed by the Census Bureau to the forefront of public conversation.

What is interesting is that in this week’s Torah portion, Bamidbar, G-d tells Moses to take a census of the Jewish people. The census was taken in three ways: by counting the contributions (taxes paid) by all the Jews (except the Tribe of Levi); by going door to door to the Tribe of Levi only; and by not counting anyone at all—just knowing how many there are (like Aharon, the High Priest).

Let me elaborate:

All Jews who were fit to serve in the army – men ages of 20 and up -- were to be counted. Each qualifying man gave a half shekel to Moses who counted the coins. Once totaled, he knew how many people were fit to serve (603,550).

The Tribe of Levi did not go to war—they would serve in the Temple. Their numbers were counted in a more miraculous way and for a different purpose. They were counted from the age of thirty days and up. Moses and Aharon would go door to door, and miraculously, they would know how many eligible people were in the home. All they had to do was keep a running tally (22,300).

Aharon on the other hand, was above being counted altogether. (And not just because we know that he is one.)

These three methods are not here just to satisfy different opinions as to which system is the best way to count the Jewish population. There is deeper spiritual significance here. Each approach indicates a different level in our service of G-d.

On the most basic level of our existence, we are counted by what we give back. What is our contribution to society? What are we doing for another person? What are we doing for G-d? How are we making this world a better place? Then we move onto the next level of service in the “Temple,” where just being who we are is what counts. Since at this level we are already more refined human beings, we make a difference all the time. Our nature has changed—we no longer have to “tell ourselves” to behave a certain way, because we do so naturally. At this level we are making a difference just by being—and even more so by being active. Even a child of just 30 days is already making a contribution.

The highest level of all, the level of spiritual perfection, is where we don’t even count. Not because we don’t matter, but because it is only G-d that matters. This is the level of the High Priest—where there is no need to count, even in a miraculous way.   



Faith Vs. Logic

Here is a question to contemplate: Is Judaism a religion of faith or a religion of logic? Is faith the fallback option or is it logic? Which is our preferable default setting?

As thinking people, we might reason that logic is king, and therefore we should rely on faith only when we cannot logically understand something. On the other hand, if we want to be a more G-d-centric people, we might reason that we should put our faith in G-d more in the center of our lives, and only use our logical minds to help propel us to action.

Balancing our understanding of the Mitzvot and our need to put G-d first, is discussed in this week’s Torah portion, Behar-Bechukotai, and illustrated to us using the example of the sabbatical year.

The law of the sabbatical year states that when we farm our land, we must allow the land to lay fallow on the seventh of a seven-year cycle. The Torah tells us that the sixth year of every such cycle will be a year of plenty, supplying enough to last us until the produce of the first year of the next seven-year cycle ripens.

Any farmer understands that land must lay fallow for a year once in a while for it be most productive. What they have a hard time understanding is why they must allow it to lay fallow in the same year of a seven-year cycle. The farmer asks, “Where will our produce come from?” And G-d replies, “No worries; the last year will be your best year, and you will have enough to last the sixth, seventh and eighth years!” To believe this, takes faith.

Yet, what is fascinating is that the Torah says that G-d expects us to question his promise! When we ask, “What will we eat?” G-d answers that we should not worry, He has our backs. What G-d doesn’t say is “Why are you questioning me? Have some faith!” This teaches us a very important lesson: That while Judaism is a mix of faith and logic, our faith is not imposed on us by G-d—it has to come from within us.

Faith comes to us when we contemplate G-d’s greatness, like when we think about the wondrous ways of the world, the things that we understand, and even the ways of G-d that we don’t get. The more we meditate and contemplate about G-d, the stronger our faith will be.

Why Not Be Judgmental?

Everyone makes mistakes. When we make a mistake, we don’t want to dwell on our error. But there are people who feel the need to keep on talking about the mistake – to your face and behind your back – reminding you of your failure. The Torah teaches us that this is wrong. Still, people find reasons and justifications for their behavior—after all, they feel they are standing up for justice! We have principles, expectations, and perspectives on life that we may feel everyone should follow. But are we right? Is our behavior righteous or are we just justifying what we are doing? 

The Torah portion we read two weeks ago was clearly against talking negatively about others. But can we ever justify such talk as “constructive criticism?” No. Because The Ethics of the Fathers teaches us that not only should we not judge others until we are in their shoes, but even then, we must only judge positively. 

However, we must ask ourselves: Are we not still judging?

This week’s Torah portion, Emor, teaches us a very important lesson.

The word Emor means, “say.” This prompts us to ask why the extra “say” is used in this text – “say to the kohanim, the sons of Aaron, and say to them …,” rather than the more common verbiage of“G-d spoke to Moses, saying, Tell the Kohanim (priests) …”

We must learn from this that the Torah is teaching us a deeper lesson. In addition to knowing the laws, we are as obligated to learn how to speak to others in a positive manner. Not only should we not say something negative about someone, we should find good things to say about them. Even more so, our positive words will give the person the strength to overcome the negativity in their lives. They don’t need us to remind them of their shortcomings. Just by the act of speaking positively, we will be elevating them and by doing so, they will rise to the occasion and do the right thing. 

Think about it this way: The fact that a person transgressed means that their soul could have overcome that transgression; the fact that they failed shouldn’t undermine their ability to have succeeded. So, look at the upside—that person has it within them to be great.

Give them the chance! Give them support! How? By speaking positively. This is ultimately why the week’s potion is called Emor— because we need to “say” out loud the good we see in others.


Regret and Forgiveness

 Everyone makes mistakes in life, and we learn from our mistakes. If someone is hurt as a result of our mistake, it is imperative that we ask for forgiveness. In order to be forgiven, however, we must regret our actions. Sounds simple enough, yet more is needed.

 This week’s Torah portion discusses three ways to express regretting sinful actions. These three expressions represent the different levels of the severity of the sin. The Code of Jewish Law adds that the main outcome of regret is that one resolves to not make the same mistake again. 

However, does this statement mean that we don’t have to regret the past, but only make a resolution for the future?

The short answer is yes, but it comes with a big “but.” Is it truly possible to change ourselves without first fully understanding what made us make the mistake in the first place? No. So although it is not imperative to regret that past, we cannot truly move on without regretting it. On the other hand, if we don’t change our behavior and begin to behave in a better way, it may indicate that our regret was not sincere.  

The lesson for us is that although we must regret our past, it is even more important that we change our behavior for the future. That is ultimately why the Code of Jewish law places emphasis on the future.   


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