Shabbat Naso 5774, 30th May 2015
In Dicken’s Hard Times, Mr. Gradgrind famously taught this definition of a horse: ‘Quadruped. Graminivorous.
Forty teeth, namely twenty four grinders, four eye-teeth, and twevle incisive.’ A horse was not an animal full of life, but an object to be defined. His ward, Cissy Jupe, struggles with this method of teaching. Talking of her lessons, she says, ‘And then he said, This schoolroom is an immense town, and in it there are a milllion of inhabitants, and only five-and-twenty are starved to death in the streets, in the course of a year. What is your remark on that proportion?
And my remark was - for I couldn’t think of a better one - that I thought it must be just as hard up on those who were starved, whether the others were a million, or a million million. And’, she concludes, ‘that was wrong too.’ But of course we know, as Dickens knows, that Cissy was right and her teaching was wrong. Dickens mocks a way of thinking that saw people as units, mere numbers who were judged according to their utility. They were useful in as far as they could work in factories. That they might have individual hopes, fears and loves was not even considered.
Dickens’ world is a caricature, but like most caricatures, it has truth at its heart. At its extreme, this sort of thinking is also depicted in futuristic dystopias such as Brave New World, where people are created to perform specific roles that are assigned to them before birth. People are seen as numbers, only useful in as far as they do their required task, There is no room for creativity, individuality or imagination. But of course, it is not just science fiction. The Nazis gave people in the concentration camp numbers and that is how they were treated - as numbers on a role call, not human beings.
When we think of people in terms of statistics, we forget that they are individuals. To return to Cissy Jupe’s comment about hunger, this week it was announced that the number of people in the world who suffering from hunger had dropped. That sounded good news, until the figure for those still suffering was mentioned- 800 million. That is 800 million individuals, each one suffering. We cannot comprehend the scale of suffering. It is only when we hear individual stories that we can begin to understand what that means.
We are currently reading from the book of Numbers. But that is not the Hebrew title of the book. Although people are numbered in the book of Numbers, they are NOT numbers. Our Sidra is called Naso, which means ‘to lift up.’ Although at the beginning of the Sidra, people are counted, Moses is not commanded to count them, but rather to ‘lift up the heads.’ The same verb is used in Exodus, in the Sidra Ki Tisa, when Moses was commanded to count the Children of Israel to assess their contributions. Rather than demeaning them by counting them, he was to treat them with respect. He was appointing them to a task, but as individuals, not numbers. Sometimes, it is necessary to count people. But there are ways of doing this that treat people as individuals, giving them dignity and appointing them to a task that they feel is a privilege to fulfil. In this case, Moses was lifting them up in appointing them to do the work of the Sanctuary. It was a sacred task, and one that gave a person dignity.
As if to emphasise the meaning of Naso, the verb appears later in our Sidra, in the so-called priestly blessing: Yisa Adonai panav eleycha, vayasem lecha shalom: literally - may the Eternal One lift up his face towards you and put peace for you. It is a difficult phrase to translate, but the idea of God lifting his - or her - face, reinforces the sense that lifting is to do with kindness, graciousness and respect. The priestly blessing asks that God bestow a very special sort of blessing: that God will be kind to us, shine on us the light of the Divine Presence and give us peace - but again the Hebrew is not simple - it does not say ‘give’ put or impose - it is an assurance of peace.
Only when each of us is treated with respected, lifted up, given dignity, can there be true peace. In war and conflict, people become numbers, cogs in a military machine or vicitms in vast numbers. Once we can recognise that every person is an individual, a whole world, as the talmud puts it, then it becomes much more difficult to resort to war. Rather, we feel compelled to establish peace.
May we learn to see beyond numbers and statistics, to see the individuals, and may we work for the time when each individual will be able to live their life to the full, so that they may feel the fulfilment in their lives of the priestly blessing: that the Divine presence may be lifted towards us all, and we may all be blessed with peace.