If you're reading this blogpost, your ancestors probably hailed from another continent. Most of us focus more on where we are than from where we've come. Today we might know little of our ancestral history: memories fade, wars ravage, families scatter and interest wanes. Yet, there are many advantages to recalling the names of those who made possible our lives.
Into our complex relationship with ancestry comes this week's Torah portion (Bamidbar), opening the Book of Numbers. Picking up where we left off at the end of the Book of Exodus, the Israelites take a census to record tribal numbers, names and places. This census, at the start of our ancestors' next phase of journeying, reminds us that who and where we are depends on who and where we've been. History lives through us, and we and our children will live more fully if we know how we got here – the stories, the struggles and the sacrifices.
This truth takes on even more poignant meaning when we parse Torah's words. The Israelite census was to count all males over age 20 – then the age of adulthood. How Torah (Num. 1:2-3) described those adults and the task of counting them brings powerful spiritual focus to our own remembering and counting:
· Lift up – שאו את ראש כל עדת בני ישראל למשפחתם לבית אבתם במספר שמות / "Count (literally lift up) every head among the community of the children of Israel by family, by their ancestral homes, by their number of names." Today many Jews avoid "counting" people (a reaction to Holocaust branding of numbered tattoos on forearms), but in ancient days counting meant uplifting – not just to numerically count take cognizance, but to identify, to really see. What if we all counted and encountered each other that way?
· Your entire history – כל זכר לגלגלתם מבן עשרים שנה ומעלה / "All males by their polls from age 20 and above." These words have military significance, but also a secret mystical meaning: all to remember their reincarnations, from age 20 and above , or for the less mystically bent, all to remember their cycles. Counting means remembering everything in our lives that came before, how we got to adulthood, our life patterns that make us who we are. What if we really inhabited our emotional and spiritual history this way?
· To empower your Godwrestle – כל יצא צבא ישראל / "All able to do battle for Israel." These words confirm that the census had a military purpose, but we can understand it spiritually as All able to go out among the hosts of Godwrestlers, because "Israel" means to wrestle with God (Gen. 32:29).
Lift up your entire history to empower your Godwrestle." – Rediscover who we've been to empower whom we might become. Harness your cycles and totality of strength for your spiritual struggles. Leave nothing and no one behind on your way. We have this opportunity because our ancestors journeyed to bequeath us this gift. Let's remember, to help make it count.