Identity, Justice, Politics

Who should be counted

Emily Strauss is a community organizer, and a frequent contributor to New Voices, Jewish Currents, The Forward, and Lilith magazine.

For the second year in a row, the Trump administration failed to acknowledge June as LGBTQ pride month, neglecting to highlight this part of America’s heritage and population. This is not out of character for the Trump administration. In fact,the Department of Justice under Jeff Sessions reversed a request the Obama administration made to the Census Bureau to add questions about sexual orientation and gender identity to the 2020 census. The addition of these questions would have gathered critical data for meeting the public health needs of the LGBTQ community. The AIDS crisis set the precedent for the absolute necessity of accurate public health data.

B’midbar, Numbers 1:1-4:20, states “On the first day of the second month, in the second year following the exodus from the land of Egypt, the Eternal One spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the Tent of Meeting, saying “Take a census of the whole Israelite company…”

God asked Moses to count and list the names of every male over the age of twenty who was able to bear arms, and have a representative of each house assist. God ordered that the Levites not be counted among the Israelites, for they would be in charge of tending to the Tabernacle.

This parsha centers on the importance of standing up to be counted, and the individual responsibility of each person to the larger whole. The construction of the Tabernacle shows that individuals together form the community. Men over the age of twenty who can bear arms are being counted for the purpose of military organization. The Israelites are wandering in the desert, and the desire for a form of communal defense is at the forefront.

However, when we set apart from the whole those who should be counted, we then by default acknowledge the existence of those who are not being counted. We know that their names and their labor matter too, and are imperative to the survival of the community. We know that feminized labor is devalued, and the emotional and spiritual labor done by women to create nurturing atmospheres is rarely acknowledged.

There is a parallel between the unnamed individuals that were not counted in the census Moses led, and the stories of LGBTQ people that have been erased and silenced. We are the unnamed and uncounted figures throughout history. In addition, when the legal mandate for a US census was written in the constitution, it stated that slaves should be counted as 3/5ths of a person. The census Moses led must be similarly challenged by the evolving lens of history.

There is tension between one’s obligation to self, and one’s obligation to community. However, one must have a self-interest in order to be in relationship with others. In order to be in genuine relationship with one’s community, we must show up and be counted as our full selves. The parsha focuses on a census in which only a fraction of the community was counted, but the parsha also falls on Shavuot, when God gave the Torah at Mount Sinai. The rabbi Rashi said that all Jews were at Mount Sinai, and that we all received the Torah. A census isn’t required for us to know we all contain the prophetic leadership that was given at Mount Sinai, and we were all of us there.



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