Rabbi Sydni's Shabbat Sermons

פרשת כי תשא, תש״פ

Parshat Ki Tisa, 5780

by Rabbi Sydni

Saturday, March 14th, 2020

Census 2020: A Simple Mitzvah

Just yesterday, Rabbi Feivel and I took a break from working from home to fill out our 2020 census. How many people live in our home? What kind of home do we live in? What are our genders? What is our relationship to each other? How do we identify racially? How old are we? And done. It took about five minutes for both of us to fill out the census online, but it can also be done by mail or over the phone. It is just too easy of a mitzvah to pass up.

Our parshah begins today...וידבר ה׳ אל משה לאמר כי תשא את ראש בני ישראל לפקודיהם איש כפר נפשו לה׳ בפקד אותם... - And God spoke to Moses saying, “When you take a census of the people Israel according to their enrollment, each shall pay a ransom for himself upon being enrolled…” (Exodus 30:11-12). God commands Moses to give a census, and with this census, the people of Israel must pay a nominal fee. If they, the people of Israel, newly freed slaves who are living in the desert, can actively participate in a census that requires them to pay money, then we, a people with Internet and with a whole lot more free time lately, can certainly take five minutes out of our day to perform our civic duty.

In the first few verses of Ki Tissa, God gives some excellent reasons for participating in the census. In the second verse of our parshah- ולא יהיה בהם נגף בפקוד אותם, so that they will not experience a plague in counting them (Ex. 30:12) we hear God’s first reason for the census - healthcare. In the coming years, our census results will be used to determine the distribution of public funds. If we want our hospitals, school systems, and roads to be kept up to the demands of the actual population of our region, we must let the government know that our numbers exist. Especially at a time in which plague seems too intimate, we must act in a way that maximizes the healthcare we receive here in Shreveport.

Three times in our tiny second aliyah today, we will read that the census is instituted לכפר על נפשותיכם - to atone for yourselves (e.g. Ex. 30:15). With new census numbers, businesses and government can see where they have misstepped in the past few years. Congress relies on census numbers to determine how many representatives we receive. With this census, we have the opportunity to make sure that someone is actually advocating for our voices as residents of Caddo Parish and the State of Louisiana. If we look at censuses from years past, we know that people of disparate socioeconomic backgrounds were not represented proportionally. Today, we can use data to concretely, financially atone for the wrongdoings of our past.

And finally, God commands Moses to take a census לזכרון לפני ה׳, as a remembrance before God (Ex. 30:16). The United States has collected a census since 1790, giving us the tools to explore our history generation after generation. Thursday night, as I was tutoring my brother for his bar mitzvah, he mentioned that he does not understand why he needs to study history. There’s nothing to learn from old stories, he said, and my mouth dropped. I hope that we know in this room that we learn from our past how to deal with success and failure. We learn who we came from and why our ideals are what they are today. In a religious tradition so focused on reliving our history, on reviving the deceased through storytelling and reenactment, we must make sure that our descendents are able to better know who we were and what kind of world we lived in.

Avoiding plague, atoning for wrongdoings, and creating history - It seems to me that these three reasons are worth five minutes of anyone’s day. We find ourselves in community right now because we value each other’s ideas and company. For the sake of not only your own representation, but also, of the representation of the others sitting in this room, if you have not done so yet, please fish out your census envelope from underneath that giant pile of mail and answer a few simple questions. I’d like to conclude here with our siddur’s prayer for our country:

Our God and God of our ancestors: We ask Your blessings for our country - for its government, for its leaders and advisors, and for all who exercise just and rightful authority. Teach them insights of Your Torah, that they may administer all affairs of state fairly, that peace and security, happiness and prosperity, justice and freedom may forever abide in our midst. Creator of all flesh, bless all the inhabitants of our country with Your spirit. May citizens of all races and creeds forge a common bond in true harmony, to banish hatred and bigotry, and to safeguard the ideals and free institutions that are the pride and glory of our country. May this land, under Your Providence, be an influence for good throughout the world, uniting all people in peace and freedom - and helping them to fulfill the vision of Your prophet:"Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they experience war any more." And let us say: Amen