We were trying to figure out which one of us would give the first speech and we decided, AGE before beauty.
In terms of my family, there is no question that I am the oldest child, which is why I am going first. So in that sense I’m the number one child, or as my parents sometimes say, “The Gem.” But there’s a lot more to who I am than a simple number.
This topic is important since today we are beginning the book of Numbers, and today’s portion includes a census of the people of Israel. The Torah seems to be showing us that numbers are important. But Jews have always been wary of counting people. We don’t want to turn people into numbers. In my Haftorah, the prophet Hoshea seems to be sending that message, when he states that the number of the people in Israel cannot be counted, much like grains of sand near the sea.
As one who loves sports, I often follow statistics. A player’s stats can be impressive, but they never tell the whole story. If someone’s averaging 20 points a game in basketball, we don’t know whether the guy he is guarding is also scoring 20, or whether he is able to box out on rebounds or set a pick for his teammates or make a perfect pass. Court vision cannot be measured.
Lebron James scores lots of points, but what makes him great is that he gets the whole team involved. He’s a great passer and always knows where the open man is. You can’t really appreciate him by statistics alone – except for one very important statistic: his birthday, which is the same as mine! And my cousin Josh’s.
And Tiger Woods, but he’s a topic for another Torah portion.
One reason Jews are wary of turning people into numbers is because that is exactly what the Nazis did to us. They burned numbers onto the arms of their victims and they became known by their numbers more than their names.
But for Jews, numbers do still play an important role. Right now we are counting the days between Passover and Shavuot. Today is the 39th day of that counting period, known as the Omer.
Also, every Hebrew letter has a numeric value. So Alef is one and bet is two. And by adding up the numbers in a person’s name, we can sometimes learn something about that person. For instance, my name, Yaakov, has a numeric value of 182, which is the same total as in the word that means enthusiastic. When it comes to sports, at least, I’m very enthusiastic.
This is Memorial Day weekend, a time for us also to count, as we mourn the approximately 1 million 346 thousand Americans who have died fighting for our freedom since the Revolutionary War. This number reminds us to count our blessings too, and remember all that we have to be thankful for.
That’s something I’m doing through my mitzvah project, as I have been helping with the kids at the JCC Tennis program, and donating some tennis rackets to those who might otherwise not be able to play at the Boys and Girls Club of Stamford.
I’ll be back in a few minutes to thank some people, but right now I would like to hand it over to my sister Sarah, the “beauty” in this equation of our Torah portion!
Author of "Embracing Auschwitz" and "Mensch•Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi - Wisdom for Untethered Times." Winner of the Rockower Award, the highest honor in Jewish journalism and 2019 Religion News Association Award for Excellence in Commentary. Musings of a rabbi, journalist, father, husband, poodle-owner, Red Sox fan and self-proclaimed mensch, taken from essays, columns, sermons and thin air. Writes regularly in the New York Jewish Week and Times of Israel.
Wednesday, June 1, 2011
TBE Bar/Bat Mitzvah Commentary; Jacob Goldberg on Bamidbar
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