Parshat Naso: Stand Up & Be Counted? I Don’t Think So
This week, I completed the national census that the government sent everyone. It’s illegal to not participate. It makes some people nervous to be giving personal information to the government, which is an interesting measure of our trust in governments. Collecting information for a census is nothing new, it appears in our Torah reading this week.
What’s different about the way the Torah describes a census is the verb that’s used. The Torah doesn’t tell us to count anyone, it tells us to ‘carry’ everyone. The name of the parshah is Naso, which means ‘carry’, but is always translated as ‘count’. The translation reflects the context because we are then told names, households and total numbers of tribes — it clearly reflects a census. So why doesn’t the Torah just use the verb ‘count’ as it does when telling us to count days?
Judaism tells us to be careful to never reduce people to numbers or objects, and so we are careful about moments when we need to count people. We find creative ways to get the tally we need without reducing anyone to a mere number. But the verb ‘carry’ doesn’t really help us in that regard, it actually introduces an entirely new concept. I, as the subject of the sentence, am the one using the verb, and so it is speaking to me of what I am doing, and not speaking of the outcome. If the focus was on counting, it would speak to the final number, but since the focus is on carrying, it speaks to my action. With the perspective of myself at the centre of this action, I bring the verb ‘carry’ to the other things mentioned in the Torah reading this week.
There are two unusual life events described by the Torah that only apply to unusual moments. The first is the ordeal of the Sotah, the suspected adulterous. A husband suspects his wife has been unfaithful but can’t prove it. Now they are in a stalemated marriage because the suspicion of betrayal means they can’t cohabit until they resolve the doubt. But how can you resolve the doubt of something you can’t prove? The ritual described is one of the more unusual moments in Torah. The woman is put through a ‘trial by ordeal’ in public and God is brought into the ritual as the Divine Judge. What I find most interesting is that before any of the ritual begins, the husband prepares a sin offering, whose ingredients classify it as an offering to atone for jealousy. In other words, it’s an offering for what he did, not what she might have done. He can’t seem to carry his own doubts and suspicions, and so he transfers them to his partner, and now she must endure the ordeal. It is his failure to carry that she must now bear.
Shortly after, the Torah describes the journey of a Nazirite. This is any person who takes upon themselves the vow of being a Nazirite, which entails a set amount of time in their life devoted to a spiritual journey. They are forbidden to drink wine (participate in communal celebration); to mourn as needed (participate in communal grief); or to cut their hair (participate in communal social norms). The goal is to pull away from society and draw closer to God. At the end of their Nazirite pledge, they are to cut their hair and bring a sin offering. The sin offering reflects the fact that this particular choice of journey was a sin to begin with. The goal of Judaism is not to pull away from each other and seek isolated holiness with God. The aim of Judaism is to bring God and holy moments into our world, as we work toward a better world for everyone. Disengaging from this obligation is the choice not to carry the human responsibility we believe we all share. The Nazirite chose to carry only themselves while ignoring the joy and tears of others, that’s a sin.
When the Torah tells us to take a census, it deliberately uses the verb “carry”. When we form a united group together, we begin to see the obligation toward each other. If I fail to carry my own doubts, and then project them onto you, I have failed to carry you and my responsibilities. Likewise, if I only answer to my own needs and desires, and I fail to connect and participate with others, I have failed to carry anyone and have turned away from my obligations.
It now becomes impossible to reduce anyone to a number, or to conclude that taking a census boils things down to numbers. We do not count each other, we carry each other. In our world of overwhelming data, statistics and numbers, it becomes too easy to slip away from one another and leave someone standing on their own. I do not want to ‘stand up and be counted’, I want to join hands and stand strong.