Aisle-Crossers and Bridge-Builders

I’ve been involved in nonprofits in one way or another for more than half my life, and I can tell you firsthand that the sector has – let’s call it – an “open relationship” with accuracy when it comes to counting people. From my time in camping (“we had over 100 inquiries!”…if you count both parents, all the kids and the dog), to advocacy (“we had 2,000 people at the rally!”…in the venue that holds 600 max), to fundraising (“we had 100% participation!”…if thinking about making a gift counts as participation), it’s an industry prone to inflation.

There are, of course, plenty of complicated reasons for this. Nonprofit professionals are under immense pressure to deliver outsized impact with tiny budgets in hand. Board members and donors often come from corporate backgrounds and impose a focus on bottom-line numbers in a context where those numbers might not be best suited to tell the full story of the organization’s work. And given that most nonprofits operate within a capitalist framework, if you’re not scaling, you might as well be out of business, so there is always the expectation to exponentially surpass last year’s numbers. Don’t believe me? Just ask any rabbi today whose synagogue proudly announced the thousands of people who logged into their Zoom services during the pandemic.

As fast and loose as our industry might play with attendance numbers, though, the Torah is the exact opposite when it comes to counting heads. In fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham to make of him a nation as numerous as the stars, the first census of military-eligible Israelites yields precisely 603,550, of which 22,273 were firstborn. Later on, we learn exactly how many souls comprised each of the twelve tribes, and later still, we get a recount of military-eligible men that yields 601,730. People matter, and in turn, so does counting them accurately.

As Jewish law developed some generations later, though, it became forbidden to count people. Building on the words of the Prophet Hosea (“The number of the children of Israel…shall neither be measured nor counted”), the rabbis sought to distance themselves from the potential of objectifying or instrumentalizing individuals.

Given the precision with which the Torah handles such matters, then, it’s more than a little strange that one of the first instances of counting people in the Torah seems to be inaccurate. In our portion this week, Shemot (“names”), the text opens up by naming the children of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob, each with their household in tow. In summation, “the total number of persons that were of Jacob’s issue came to seventy.” Which is great! Except that just a few chapters ago, the text named each and every person who went down to Egypt…all 69 of them. So was the Torah simply rounding up to get to a multiple of its favorite number (7), or was something deeper going on?

Rashi, the medieval French rabbi, and commentator responds to our quandary: “The one whose name is omitted is Yocheved…she was born in Egypt, but she was not conceived in Egypt.” In other words, Rashi is counting the first baby born after the trip, as her mother was already far along in her pregnancy when the group embarked on their journey.

But there are plenty of in-utero biblical characters who aren’t named or counted until they make their way out of the womb, so why make an exception with Yocheved? To answer that question, a midrashic commentary lists her three greatest contributions to the Israelite nation: “Yocheved carried Priesthood (Aaron), Kingship (Moses), and Wisdom (Miriam).” Not only did she imbue in her three children remarkably distinct gifts, but it was those very same children who would spark the Israelites’ eventual liberation from their Egyptian captors! So in Yocheved’s case, what’s a few months of gestation when we’re counting heads?

Which brings us, then, to the single most important insight about this woman. Sure, she and her partner Amram probably had really great genes to have brought these three children into the world. But something else about her origin story fascinates the rabbis of the Talmud, and they become convinced that there is but one true explanation:

“Rabbi ?iyya bar Abba said (in the name of) Rabbi ?ama bar ?anina: This missing seventieth person is Yocheved, who was born between the walls (i.e., conceived on the journey and born on the border).”

It wasn’t just that she was born on the geographical border; the rabbis are pointing to the fact that she became someone who could understand people on both sides of an ideological one, too.

In her years as a midwife, she regularly negotiated between the Egyptians and the Israelites. We can imagine, too, that even after Moses made his journey down the Nile and eventually back into her care as a wet nurse, she managed to raise three profoundly different children whose gifts at times put them at odds with each other. And when it came time to reveal to Moses – raised among Egyptian royalty – who he truly was, it was Yocheved alone who could inspire him to navigate the complexities of his newfound identity.

The irony of all of this is that – for all the import given to names and numbers – Yocheved’s is the only one that’s missing when the full list is given at the end of Genesis. The mother of our liberation, whose ability to understand both sides, border-cross in practice and in thought, and plant the first seeds of liberation in the minds and hearts of her children, is left out. Which, of course, is often how things shake out in our day, too. We rarely hear of the peace brokers who tirelessly flip back and forth to help both sides find common ground. Or the aisle-crossers who earnestly seek out opportunities to bridge gaps, not widen them. Or even the family member who works the phones to get the anti-vax uncle and the triple-vaccinated niece to actually hear where the other is coming from.

Our world needs more Yocheveds among us. More bridge-builders, aisle-crossers, common-ground-finders. More folks who were born between the walls of a society increasingly obsessed with building them. And while they might not get the credit they deserve right away, it will come in due time. As the second century Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi (Judah the Prince) once proclaimed:

“A woman once gave birth to 600,000 at one time.’

‘Who,’ a student asked?

‘Yocheved,’ answered the rabbi, ‘because when she gave birth, she also gave life to the 600,000 who left slavery in Egypt.”

And while Rabbi Yehudah’s precision with numbers might not be as sharp as the Torah would like, his vision for a liberated world surely is.

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