The white cliffs of Dover,
Tomorrow, just you wait and see.
There’ll be love and laughter, and peace ever after,
Tomorrow, when the world is free.
This song was written in 1941, when the war was still raging and the British people were suffering and in desperate need of hope.
Like most of us, lately I’ve been thinking about people dying for a cause. It’s understandable, as this week was the 75th anniversary of D-Day.
On that day and throughout the war, thousands of people put their lives on the line for something they believed in. And indeed, many people did die. Most of them extremely young — late teens and early 20s. They died because they believed they were standing up for a just cause. And it was worth the risk.
This is astounding. I’m not certain we would see such widespread passion for a cause today, although the women’s marches and those organized by the Parkland students showed that we can band together when we want. But they were single events, and no one was shooting at us. D-Day was part of a unified effort by several nations to free Europe from the Nazis.
Today it feels as if the great alliances between nations that came out of World War II are under attack. NATO and the European Union seem to be tearing at the seams, as nationalism is on the rise, both here in the US and elsewhere around the globe. The dangers that are inherent in this are clear. “My country first” is the kind of thinking that leads to “I’m better than you,” which leads to dehumanizing the Other.
Our Torah portion this week is the first few chapters of the book of Numbers, in Hebrew BaMidbar. Both names are descriptive. Numbers refers to the census that takes place at the beginning of the book. BaMidbar means in the desert, and that’s exactly where we find the Children of Israel, carrying God’s sanctuary with them.
Although we previously thought of them as a ragtag mixed multitude, here we see them in family groups, carefully arranged around the mishkan, the portable sanctuary that they had built.
Two things are interesting about this. First, God refers to the heads of the various tribes by name. “And with you there shall be a man of every tribe… and these are the names of the men who shall stand with you; from the tribe of Reuben: Elizur the son of Shedeur” and so on. (Numbers 1:4-5).
The obvious questions is – didn’t Moses know who they were? He’d already assembled the leaders of the community at Mt. Sinai. So why did God have to go to the trouble of naming all twelve?
The other interesting aspect is that the census had a very specific purpose; only males age 20 and above are counted; God tells Moses to count “all who are able to go forth to war in Israel; you and Aaron shall count them by their armies.”
Armies? How did they suddenly become armies? First they were just family units, tribes jostled together, all equal, all fleeing Egypt together. Suddenly we find them marching in a particular order, camped evenly spaced around the mishkan at night.
They had morphed from a disorganized mass into a well-defined people with a specific mission, a united purpose, to travel to the Promised Land and make a home for themselves there. To do that, they needed to work together.
Group mentality is important. But so is individuality. This, I believe, is why God went to the trouble of saying the names of each of the twelve leaders. By naming all of them, God acknowledged their individual and communal value and responsibility.
Our sages teach that each time the people stopped to make camp, every tent was set up facing in the same direction, so a person in one tent could not peek into another. It gave each family some degree of privacy, of dignity.
It is when people lose their names, lose their dignity and individuality, that they become faceless, Other. This is what has brought us to a crisis point in our own nation, with thousands upon thousands of innocent people who wish only to migrate to another place are being demeaned and treated as non-humans. It is what brought about the Holocaust in which six million Jews died.
Names matter. Individuals matter. This is why the news this week was filled with men in their 90s, men who survived the terrible battles of D-Day, telling their stories. Each story is precious, each person is precious. It is why a Native American survivor held a ceremony where the names of the 29 Native Americans who died in the assault on the beaches were recited.
May we be blessed to remember that despite the things that divide us humans, there is only one human race. Each person is a blessing, each child is a blessing, and has the potential to be remarkable. God carefully recited the names of the twelve leaders because they mattered. We can do no less.