I keep thinking about my trip last week to Israel. It reminded me of those t-shirts that I see from time to time (usually on African Americans who seem to have the largest families), which proudly announce: “Johnson Family Gathering – Hattie, Mississippi, July 20-24, 1998.” My whirlwind, four-day visit to Israel felt the same – like I needed a t-shirt that said, “Jewish Family Gathering – Tel Aviv/Jerusalem, Israel – July 2-6, 2001.” Of course it was like a Jewish family reunion where only a few of us came to join the 5 million family members who already live there.
But it still felt undeniably like family. Family members who have lived there for decades mingled with the relative newcomers (who mostly spoke Russian) and the few visitors from far away like us, all reaching out to the others and embracing, just like long-lost cousins. “Thank you so much for coming,” was the most often repeated phrase of the reunion. “Thank you, thank you, we feel so isolated from the rest of family these days.”
In this week’s Torah portion, God commands Moses and Eleazer the priest (and son of Aaron), to take another census of men, 20 years old and up. They are to determine after all the calamities of the forty years of crossing the desert and the years of being attacked by those who would destroy the Jewish family, just how many of us are left who can be counted upon to defend the people and stand up to those who would deny us the right to create a Jewish country in the land of Israel.
I am fascinated by the fact that God commands not just Moses, the obvious leader and political head of the people to conduct this census, but specifically commands Eleazer, who is now the High Priest to participate in the counting. It is obviously not enough to think about the Jewish people merely as “citizens” of a political/social group, or state. Even three thousand years ago, the wisdom of the Torah insisted that we understand the Jewish people as a spiritual family.
Judaism is the evolving religious civilization of the Jewish people. We are not like other religious groups who count their number according to those who share their specific beliefs. When we count, we go tribe by tribe, family by family, because we are family, and every family counts.
When I was in Israel last week, even though it was only four days, I had the magic of being there exactly when my wife’s cousins were throwing a party celebrating their 25th wedding anniversary. With a quick taxi ride to Jerusalem one night, I got to see her entire family who now live in Israel – her aunt and uncle and cousins, all with large Orthodox families.
It was a wonderful treat for me, and I saw how thrilled they were that I was there. Everyone kept coming up to me, putting their arms around me and saying, “We are so glad that you are here. Thank you, thank you so much for coming.”
It was on the midnight bus ride back to Tel Aviv that I realized the warm and loving greeting that the relatives gave me at the party was the exact same embrace that I was receiving everyday from everyone in the country.
“Family” really does take on a new meaning when you spend time in Israel. And that’s why God commanded both Moses and Eleazer to do the counting – so that we would never forget that Israel is not just a political entity where we argue over whether or not we agree with the political policy of one government or another. Israel has always been and will always be something much, much more than that. It is about our family connection to each other, and what matters most are the things you can't see, and feel, and necessarily measure.
I was reminded once again that Israel is the only place in the world where when you show up, no matter what type of Jew you are, or where you come from, you are recognized by almost everyone as a member of the same family. And when you get that, when you really feel that moment of family, the tears that follow nearly take your breath away.