- May 29, 2012
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Unnumbered with the House of Levy
Numbers 1.1-2, 47
Russ Dean, May 26, 2012
On the weekend of May 26 I was a guest of Charlotte’s Temple Israel, having been asked to speak during the Saturday morning Shabbat service, to honor Rabbi Murray Ezring, who is celebrating an 18th anniversary as the now-longest-tenured Rabbi of this Temple. Murray Ezring is a friend of mine, a long time friend of Park Road Baptist Church, and it was an honor for me to be invited. I chose to base my remarks on the Torah reading for the day. I began by reading, in English, several verses from the four chapters of the book of Numbers which had been read as part of the Shabbat service:
“The Lord said… take a census of the whole congregation (eda) of Israelites (bene-yisrael)… by ancestral houses, according to the number of names. [The text tells of the leaders who were] chosen from the congregation (eda)… [and it details how they were numbered… by each of the twelve tribes… then we read]… The Levites, however, were not numbered by their ancestral tribe along with [the others]…” (Numbers 1.1-2, 47)
I began this career as an associate minister: 27 years old, happily married – and happily childless. (Now, I’m even happier today as a father… but all things in due season!) Our honey-moon lasted a decade. I didn’t know how to change a diaper. I had never been called out of a night’s glorious rest by a screaming toddler. I had not awaited the anxious return of headlights in the driveway. I knew neither the heaviest weight nor the highest joy which is fatherhood. I was young and clueless to parental responsibility – and, inconceivably, I was responsible for the safety and spiritual development of a busload of teenagers. (What were those people thinking!?)
But… I knew how to count. Endlessly, I counted… “1, 2, 3 (sit down!)… 8 (get quiet!)… 15 (put that down!)… 29 (leave her alone!)… Yep, everybody’s here. Let’s go!” Maybe it was this incessant counting that influenced Amy and me to call off the stork when we could still play man-to-man defense as parents. Amy says, “Two is more than one more than one.” We can’t imagine how outnumbered we’d at home with three! But whether the number is two or 603,550, as with that massive head-count in the Sinai, what really matters is that you count everyone – because everyone counts!
Of course, and understandably, there are skeptics. If everyone counts, we probably should even ask of today’s text: Why not the children? And where are the women? Regarding our last national census, “Just over a quarter [of respondents told the Pew Research Center] the government [was] asking for too much personal information.” Well, some will always be skeptical of the census, fearing “big brother” – but the sordid politics of gerrymandering is no conspiracy theory. Everybody does count, for something, though what tells the tale may ultimately lie with who does the counting.
For the Israelites, it was Moses. He gathered the people according to their ancestral homes, and he counted. The author spills a lot of ink on this task, and scholars suggest various interpretations, though all agree more than mathematics is at stake. One sees symbolism referring to the significance of the tabernacle. Another sees gematria, a numeric code representing bene-ysrael. Another scholar finds mathematical parallels with Babylonian astrology, an interpretation exalting the House of Israel to cosmic proportion. Regardless the original intent, Thomas Dozeman says, clearly “the priestly authors are producing a… theological history of Israel.” As any good mathematician will tell you, it’s never just about the numbers.
This census was taken by family – they weren’t just numbers. The kinship of the twelve tribes of Jacob has always been central to Jewish identity – and the kinship has been stronger than your numbers. It is clear, even after more than 3,000 years, it still is. A Jewish gathering always gives me the distinct feeling I am in a community. There is warmth and welcome, but I always feel like I’ve walked into someone else’s family reunion. Whether through blood or conviction or persecution, the ties that bind the Jewish people make you a family.
I know of no better compliment to pay a community of faith.
But family connection is not the key to this census. God says, “Take a census of the whole congregation of Israel…” “The term ‘congregation’ does not signify family ties.” The identity of the twelve tribes was strong – but a broader identity was even more important: congregation – those who gathered at the tabernacle. Centuries later, an itinerant rabbi would also redefine family for his rag tag band of disciples. “Who are my mother and my brothers?” Jesus asked. “And looking [around], he said, ‘Here… Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother’” (Mark 3.33-35). Your Jewish identity is moving to me. A fragmented Christian church could learn a great deal from you. But the rabbis who have glimpsed the world through God’s all-seeing eye have always dared to remind us, disturbing as it sometimes is, that as important as the family is, it is not as important, or as defining, as the congregation.
Ironically, the only clan of bene-yisrael not counted, was that of Levy. When this son of Jacob and was born, his mother, Leah, said, “…this time my husband will join me… so she named him Levy” (Genesis 29.34). His name implied his role: he would join people together. So Levy became the father of the tribe devoted to the service of the tabernacle – the tabernacle that joins together all who come, to worship and serve God.
I have learned this weekend that my friend Murray Ezring is of the tribe of Levy. I should have known! Rabbi Ezring’s 18 years of service to Temple Israel is laudable, and this weekend celebrates all the life (chai) he has given here. But that service is more than commendable, it is inspiring – a word which carries a divine imprimatur for Baptists. Your rabbi’s work is divinely important because he is one of those rare leaders who has glimpsed the world with God’s eyes, and with that vision has come to understand that God’s family is bigger than Temple Israel. Dare a Baptist minister standing in a Jewish pulpit say it’s even bigger than Israel!? Murray Ezring’s work throughout the Charlotte community and his offering of friendship to Muslims and Bahais, Unitarians and Buddhists, Quakers and even a few Baptists, make it clear that his work is true to his ancestral name. His work joins people together.
That other rabbi I mentioned was always opening eyes… expanding people’s view… welcoming… including… not unlike your own rabbi. Once, when he had praised the great faith of a man outside of Judaism, his own, Jewish disciples, were offended. But Jesus said, “I tell you, many will come from east and west and will eat with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of [God]…”(Matthew 8.11) The congregation is bigger than the family.
When they set the table on that day, that day when east and west meet, when the Baptists join the Jews at the table of Abraham, I want to be gathered with the uncounted tribe of Levy, because in the Kingdom of God, all are welcome and no one is just a number. So let this Baptist be counted in the unnumbered tribe of Murray Ezring. And may his tribe increase!
May it be so!