Question: Why did G-D create people?
Answer: Because G-D loves stories.
This simple question and answer is one of my favorite Jewish expressions. We are our stories.
If we are b’tzelem Elohim, if we are created in G-D’s image, then we must love stories also. We must love the stories of our family, of our friends, of our neighbors, of our greater communities. HaShem knows G-D’s stories. HaShem knows about the flood, about the exodus, and about the message of the rainbow to Noah. G-D wants to listen to your story. That is one of the purposes of prayer.
What happens when we listen to the stories of others, when we show an interest in others? The answer is: we give life to them. We make them count.
When I was a Chaplain at Lenox Hill Hospital in Manhattan, the stairway mostly used by staff was filled with inspirational quotes. The first one you saw on entering the stairway was from the late, great African-American poet, Maya Angelou. It reads: “They might not remember what you said, but they will remember how you made them feel.” A quote I found conspicuous by its absence is, “You treat a disease, you win, you lose. You treat a person, I guarantee you, you’ll win no matter what the outcome.” That is a quote from Dr. Hunter Adams of West Virginia, portrayed by the late Robin Williams in the movie “Patch.”
The explosion in widely available demographic data about our relatives, by paying ancestry.com or by using the library yourself, as I did, gives us the facts about our relatives. Facts are impersonal and dull. We give life to facts by weaving stories from them. Look at the advertisements for ancestry.com.
With this in mind, we return this week, for the second time, to the parsha Naso. Once again, we are told to take a census of our people. The essence, I feel, is that we are not told why to take the census. We are not looking for the number of adults who can go into battle. The essence, I feel, is in how we are told to take the census. The name of the parsha comes from its second verse: Naso et rosh. To lift the head. As Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks points out, one of the many ways to translate this unusual census-taking instruction is to translate it as you count the other person by lifting his head. Naso is not about the people being counted. Naso is about the people doing the counting. The U.S. Census Bureau calls these people “enumerators.” They reflect you as a number. Naso describes them as those who can lift up your head.
We know from the behavioral sciences, we know from Chaplaincy Theory, you have a better chance of eliciting these facts from others if you develop a relationship with them first. If you listen to their story. If you make them more than a count. If you make them count.
So, in Naso, we find ourselves in the wilderness, Bamidbar, bored, restless, and even a bit angry. How long do we have to be here? We did not know it was 40 years until the 40 years were over. Some wanted to go back. “At least in Egypt we had fish to eat,” was heard.
The Jesuit Priest, Father David Donovan, and probably many others, was fond of saying, “G-D meets you where you are.” And, so, in Naso, G-D tells us the people need to be reminded of their value, of their worth, that they count … by the way in which we count them.
In recent times, parts of Judaism modified a phrase in the Amidah from describing G-D as “who gives life to the dead,” into “who gives life to all, michayeh ha-kol.” Isn’t that what we are saying in Naso? We are saying that we are giving life to all by making all feel that they count. We count them by making them count.
Rabbi Sacks reminds us of the axiom of the Talmudic scholar, Ben Zoma, who said, “Who is honored? One who honors others.”
Thank you for the honor of sharing my thoughts with you.
Barry Pitegoff is a Staff Chaplain at Bon Secours Community Hospital in Port Jervis, New York. Barry enjoyed thousands of hours of volunteer chaplaincy at hospitals, hospices, and prisons while he was vice president of market research for Visit Florida, the state’s tourism board. After retirement, Barry transformed into professional chaplaincy by taking a second Master’s Degree and two years’ of hospital internships. Barry was awarded the title of BCC, Board Certified Chaplain at the May 2019 conference of the NAJC (Neshama: Association of Jewish Chaplains). In 2020, Chaplain Barry was elected to the Board of NAJC, serves on Chaplain Review Committees, and facilitates a monthly national video call of Jewish hospital chaplains.