22/23 May 2020, 28/29 Iyar 5780

Rafael, my youngest son and I visited Rome last Autumns. Such memories feel a life time ago. We cycled part of the Appian way. It was idyllic as you can imagine but the most extraordinary sight for us was a stone set at the edge of the Appian cobbled path outside an old villa-engraved with the names Barich Zabda Valerian Akiva…Our guide, not knowing who we were, enthusiastically told us the name was Jewish attached to the slave holder’s. As a former slave so keen to be noted, seen and counted he had paid for the stone and his engraved name before he died. And centuries later Rafael and I saw it and noted.

I think of this now this Shabbat as we begin BaMidbar /Numbers the fourth book of Torah opening with the census of the people. The taking of the census is potentially dull -a list of names. “Take a census [S’u et rosh–literally, “Lift up the head”] of the whole Israelite community.” The word s’u is only used when the intention is to indicate greatness [that is, holding high one’s head]. (Nachmanides on Numbers 1:2) The census demonstrates that it’s each individual that makes up a community. Rabbi Louis Jacobs z’l taught us rabbinic students at Leo Baeck College and wrote in his Torah commentary of BaMidbar-lists of names may seem dull but in actual fact when you read the phone book-rather like a census-each Brown/Smith or Cohen contains their own stories and individuality.   Italian commentator Sforno of the 15th c anticipated him“According to the number of names…” For at that time, every one of that generation was designated by his name, which indicated and reflected stature and character. (Sforno on Numbers 1:2).

We have survived as we have from our founders’ hope at the beginning of the 20th c. And through these extraordinary weeks that see all of us over 800 of us gathering this weekend…Being counted is critical. Being seen and being part of. LJ has grown and developed by recognising all who count themselves as being part of this community-we’ve expanded who counts from Biblical times. Each individual ameliorates our movement and we are greater together than just the sum of our parts. We know that showing up for each other and our values is the ultimate way of being counted. Showing up to be counted.  Lily Montagu, our founder,  anticipated this moment of us gathering as communities within Liberal Judaism this weekend;

there is no reason why we should be unhappy about the future, since the best people will always look for the best in life and get together in search of it’ (Rose 1959).

Rabbi Rebecca Birk