Sunday The Rabbi Went Surfing A Surfer's Vort Rav Hayim Leiter provides an Etzah Parashat Ki Tisa The first Pasuk of the Parasha says, “When you take a census of the Children of Israel, according to their numbers, each person should give a ransom to God for his soul, when you count them, so there will not be a plague in counting them.” There are so many problems with this verse, it’s hard to find a place to start. The first thing that must be worked out with this Pasuk is, what it is saying altogether. It’s very confusing because of its odd construction. It seems that God is instructing Moshe to take a census of the people and for the people’s protection, they must make a donation to safeguard themselves against a plague. The second issue with this verse are the words “counting” and “number” which appear four different times throughout. The Torah is believed to be a work of brevity, having no extraneous words. If an editor received this sentence for print, he or she would surely chop it down considerably. So there must be some reason for this loquaciousness. The last problem with the verse is a logical complication. What is the connection between the census and the plague? It may possibility be that the two things are independent but still done at the same time? That is to say, the people come to be counted and to get a vaccination concurrently by donating the requisite amount of money -- a sort of “two birds with one stone” situation. It seems clear that the reason for the repetition of the word “counting” in the verse is to indicate that something very serious is occurring with this census, something perhaps even grave. Rashi, in his first comment on the Parasha, directly connects the census with disaster, saying that the counting causes the “evil eye” to come upon the Jews. This is the source for the Jewish tradition of not counting people. Whenever there is a need for a quorum of 10, be it for prayer or anything else, we don’t point and count “1, 2, 3…”. We use verses or blessings with 10 words to count the people. The Sedra continues with the worst of Jewish sins, the Golden Calf. When the people see that Moses has delayed in coming down from the mountain when he was receiving the Ten Commandments from God, the people panic and demand that Aaron make them an idol that will be their God or new leader — or both. Aaron agrees. When Moshes descends from the mountain and sees the debauchery that is ensuing, he hurls the holy tablets to the ground, smashing them. Then Moshe and the Leviim kill the 3,000 people who were involved with the sin. And finally a plague ensues, killing even more people. Not exactly our greatest moment. At first glance, the causal connection between the census and the tragedies that befall the Children of Israel seems loose, at best. But I actually think surfing can help elucidate the connection. Imagine we took a census of the number of surfers in the world. There are two responses one could have to the results. The first is very positive, focusing on our number as compared to other groups in the world. One could say, “Wow! Look at how great we are in number. We are a large and strong tribe.” The other response could be very negative, focusing on how limited our resources are. One could say, “This is horrible! Now I’ll never get waves!!” I think the worst thing anyone could do to the surfing community is to take a census. No one would feel good about the results. Everyone always feels that the ocean is way too crowded. So what would the process hope to achieve? The problem with a census is that it takes the focus off the individual and forces it on the collective. Both in surfing as in Judaism, when one focuses on the collective it is much easier to lose sight of the value of the individual. One can say, “There are plenty of people to go around, why do I need you?” It causes us to look at the collective human experience, like being caught in traffic. When one is stuck in traffic, no one around them is of any value. All one wants is for them to disappear. I think Judaism is trying to teach us that there is very little value in viewing people as a collective. It is our challenge to always see the “other” as of ultimate value. At the risk of using a trite Jewish idiom, we always strive to remember the saying, “To save one life is to have saved the entire world.”
Rav Hayim Leiter lives in Israel and is a rabbi, mohel, and avid surfer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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