It’s a presidential election year, which prompts intriguing questions about whether or not a single vote counts in an election where more than 125 million people vote. We vote because it’s our constitutional right and our democratic duty, though not necessarily because we think our vote will tip the balance in any given election (though a handful of Floridians could have had an impact on the result in the 2000 presidential election).
This year’s election may present additional compelling reasons to highlight the importance of a single vote, namely that every person possesses an inherent dignity and a voice that deserves to be heard. Every person matters, every person counts.
It seems that throughout the primary season we’ve heard, from certain candidates, a lot about what’s wrong with other people. A demeaning, racist, misogynistic pall has fall over the election. Of course, all elections include attack ads and negative tones, and some are worse than others. But this election season has caused us to confront issues of bias, profiling and discrimination in a way that we’ve never seen before. And it’s ugly.
So I take comfort in the teachings of the Torah, especially the portion that we read this week, Bemidbar, the first portion of the fourth book of the Torah. The Hebrew name of the book, Bemidbar, means “desert,” which tells us that the setting for the book is in the desert, but its English name, Numbers, reveals that a major theme of the book is counting. The Israelites are counted by means of a census more than once.
Take a census of the whole Israelite community by the clans of its ancestral houses, listing the names, every male, head by head. (Bemidbar 1:2)
The commentators take note of the last phrase in the verse cited here, “head by head,” and wonder if it means that the Israelites are counted like any other commodity is counted, one by one, without regard for its individuality. The 15th century Spanish scholar Don Isaac Abravanel writes that the verse seems to contradict the method for counting people that we find in the Book of Exodus, which calls on each person to deposit a half-shekel coin in a box, after which the coins, not the people, are counted.
Another Spanish scholar suggests that the verse in our parasha in face teaches that each person matters. He cites that the verse specifically calls for each person to be counted “by name” as evidence that each person matters.
They were not just like animals or material objects, but each one had an importance of his own, like a king or priest, and indeed God had shown special love towards them and this is the significance of mentioning each one of them by name and status, for they were all equal and individual in status. (Rabbi Isaac Arama, 1420-1494)
Every person counts, every person matters. What doesn’t matter is race, ethnicity, religious affiliation, sexual orientation, or economic status. By nature, no single person is inherently better or more deserving than anothe. We all get one vote, and our votes count equally in an election.
That’s a crucial point to keep in mind when we read this week’s Torah portion, when we watch the candidates for president as they campaign, and when we vote this fall.
I hope that you will join me for our annual Tikun Leyl Shavuot (Night of Torah Study) as we begin this year’s celebration of Shavuot on Saturday night at 9:00 PM here at Oheb Shalom. There will be a campfire (bring a lawn chair, a blanket and a flashlight if you can) and a discussion about what the Book of Ruth teaches us about the current refugee crisis. The evening should conclude just after 10:00 PM.