“Friends, an important message from Rabbi Levinsky from the State of Arizona and the parasha of B’midbar we read today! Shabbat Shalom

“Numbers and Immigration


“A few days ago, a census worker rang my doorbell.  I knew that I was safe because we filled out our census form (early and often), but he wanted to know about one of my neighbors.  He seemed never to find this person at home and wanted to know if I could tell him when the best time might be to return.  Frankly, I know the importance of the census; it’s important for the government to know how many people live in each district so that we can be properly represented and properly served.  But there was something about this request that made me feel a little queasy.  Do I want to be telling government representatives, no matter how benign about the comings and goings of my neighbors?  No.  And I told him that I really didn’t know my neighbors schedule, which was true.

“Long before there was a U.S. Census Bureau, there was the book of Numbers (in Hebrew, the title of the book is B’midbar, or “In the desert”).  And even back then, Moses who led the Israelites ordered a census.  But our ancestors didn’t fill out forms asking them if they identified as Hispanic, African American or Caucasian – although since they had just come from Egypt, they probably would have answered “African-Israelite”.  All men of conscription age were each ordered to give ½ Shekel.  They would then count all of the ½ Shekels to determine how many men were available to form an army.  Every nation needed to defend itself and the Israelites were no exception.  Members of the Levite clan were also counted, as they were needed to perform ritual duties for the entire people.

“From time immemorial we Jews have been reluctant to count people.   Did you ever hear the expression “I’ve got your number?”  It indicates that by knowing someone’s number, that somehow you have power and control over them.   That’s certainly the case today.  We try to safeguard our social security numbers, our credit card numbers and our checking account numbers because if those numbers get into the wrong hands, we’re in deep trouble.   Numbers have also been used to dehumanize Jews.  If you’ve ever met a holocaust survivor who spent time in a concentration camp, you may have noticed a number on his or her forearm. That number was given to them by our enemies, and the number was meant to replace our humanity.

“Furthermore, my friend and colleague Rabbi Gold points out that we are probably the wrong people to focus on numbers.  How many Jews are there in the world today?  15 million?  On a good day, maybe. How many Christians and Muslims?  Over a billion each.  We don’t fare well in a numbers game. We are but a fraction of one percent of the population of the world.  We would do better focusing on quality; not quantity.  And I think we try to do that.

“As I mentioned earlier, the Federal Government is now focused on the census.  They want to know about every soul who occupies every home in the country.   On one hand, they can’t serve us properly without knowing how many of us live where, but some of the questions, particularly those regarding race or ethnic identity seem intrusive and out of place.   We should be served as Americans, not as African Americans, Hispanic Americans, or Caucasian Americans.

“As residents of Arizona, we are particularly mindful about numbers when it comes to illegal immigrants who reside in our state; not only because we are a border state, but because the media and the politicians have used a recent controversy to garner ratings and political leveraging.   Recently, the Arizona Legislature passed a controversial law, SB1070 which, among other things, allows police officers to ascertain legal residence in this country when someone is stopped, detained, investigated or arrested during some other wrongdoing.  You may like it or dislike it, and I’m not planning on weighing in on this legislation here and now, but one thing is undeniable.  SB1070 is basically a copy of federal law which is in force, but not enforced.  Politicians on both sides of the aisle are grandstanding, trying to galvanize their respective bases to fear the “aliens”, or preferably, those who oppose them from the opposing party.

“I recently heard one person describe both Republicans and Democrats in a most unflattering way regarding the immigration debate.  He said, “The Republicans want the illegal immigrants to be able to work but not to vote; The Democrats want the illegal immigrants to be able to vote but not to work.”   I believe that neither portrayal is fair and that there’s far more to it than that.

“The question of immigration, legal or illegal, like so many other issues, is quite complex.  It’s more complicated than the depiction of Caucasian Americans who drawl “They’re takin’ our jobs”.  (When is the last time a Swedish American knocked on your door and asked if you would like to have your trees trimmed?)  And it deserves more thoughtful coverage than the portrayal of those on the left who describe any attempt to get a handle on illegal immigration as “racist”.  There are people who cross our borders, by air, by sea, and by land who are white, black, yellow, and brown.  Most of them are good, kind people.  But there are, to be sure, people who enter our borders hoping to harm us – to steal from us, and even to kill us.  Is there any sane voice that says that we do not need to have any control over our borders?  Does anyone want to see a sequel to 9/11?

“If you were expecting me to offer a definitive solution to immigration reform from this pulpit, you will be sorely disappointed. But I would like to share with you just one thought which might help you put this whole debate into a meaningful perspective.

“Remember that the denomination used to count the Israelites during their wanderings in the desert was the ½ Shekel.  Notably, it was not the full Shekel.  Mind you, a single Shekel was not a lot of money, and it would have much easier mathematically to count one person per coin.  Given the system spelled out in the Torah, they would count all the half Shekels, amounting to about 300,000 Shekels and then multiplying that number by two to figure out how many were to be counted for the purpose of the census.  Why not collect a full Shekel from everyone who was to be counted?

“On classic Jewish explanation complements the idiom “No man is an island”.  In other words, nobody is a complete person (or for that matter, a complete Shekel) on his or her own. We are made whole by those around us.  In ancient times, the ½ Shekels were collected from those from the tribes of Reuben, Shimon, Zebulun and all of the others.  It was even collected from the tribe of Levi even though their task was uniquely different and had nothing to do with numbers of battle ready soldiers.  Every tribe, every person, had something unique to give, and whoever gave the ½ Shekel only became who through the contribution from another Israelite who was probably very different from him.

“Here too, in the United States, and in Arizona, we cannot each claim to be a “whole Shekel”, independently complete.  We Jews especially should know that we are by and large a people of immigrants, and that every ethnic and religious group adds another indispensible piece to the American mosaic.  We need a responsible and reasonable immigration policy; we need secure borders, whether they happen to be at JFK Airport in New York, Niagara Falls, which borders on Canada, or at Nogales, here in Arizona.

“There are two models from which we can choose. First, we can realize, as I have said, that none of us is independently whole, and that we need one another to form a moral, law abiding society.  That is how we put all of our half-Shekel pieces together.  Or we can take the unity towards which we should strive and tear it asunder.   Portray every immigrant as a member of the Russian Mafia or a Mexican drug gang.  Or describe anyone who wants to see secure borders as an intolerant bigot.  I, for one, hope that we choose the former path, and that collectively, we strive to see how we can resolve a difficult issue with a combination of common sense and compassion.

“If we can do that, maybe we’ll all be pleasantly surprised with a positive outcome.”

Hazzan David Silverstein

MEMORIAL DAY Patriot Heights 5.31.10

“Word over All-Reconciliation”

Within this splendid, sunlit atrium on a warm summer-like morning we gather to Remember.  There are here today- in memory- patriots, veterans who had nobly served our country, their families and friends who share their service and their loss.  Many, who had been soldiers, lived to tell the stories of battlefields far away. Some remained silent and discussed little, except within their own souls. Many awaited news from the front, from the jungles, the islands, the deserts. Still others elsewhere greeted their kin upon their return with handshakes, hugs, kisses, and some with majestic salutes and others with  final, tear-filled goodbyes: families who had lost loved ones. We, extended family, lost patriots and their promise of what could now never be.

As a nation, as a community, and as individuals, we are duty bound to create a meaningful ritual by which, this Memorial Day, we bless our defenders of liberty, past and present. We are admonished by civilized behavior, our joy of liberty and gratitude to take pride in our Country.  The pains of history, recent, and far away, weigh upon mind and soul, for the greatest of generations and for the present generation of serving souls.  For the youngest, brightest and best of these who serve today we pray never to have their names before us on that list that they live to their fullest devotions to ripe ages of the Biblical 120 years.

Today, many trace the letters of valiant men and women in cool stone, on headstones near and far, in the mist of waters edge, and fields of green landscapes. and in the fleshy warmth of their hearts.  We must try to fathom the character of those who lent their lives to be a shield for this noble nation, our United States of America, this Blessed land, and full of promise, of opportunity for those who love and serve.

Our heroes, our beloved dead did not merely take up arms on our behalf; their footsteps found their way to war, their bodies fell for our freedom, and for some they returned many of them and created new life.  The memory of their heartbeats sounds the rhythm of our patriotic drums, inside our souls and on the public street.

Today we recall the known and unknown soldiers—the men and women, many remembered in this place and others by children and heirs to their legacies.  Parts of their souls, poetically, ripple off our masted flags and blow through a melancholy nation, humbled in gratitude, in prayer and play; families abound, and friends delight around the poolside and kitchen. For are not these simple pleasures, those for which they fought and bequeathed to us?

This Memorial Day, at this service, our lives take pause, to reconcile that which called them to service.  Poet Walt Whitman penned the hope that one day we reconcile our need for conflict, with which we obtain the wisdom to know that all who join in the call are human expressions of the divine, as we.

“Word, over all, beautiful as the sky. Beautiful that war and all its deeds of carnage, must in time, be utterly lost; that the hands of the Sisters Death and Night, incessantly, softly wash again and ever again, this soiled world. For my enemy is dead: a man divine as myself is dead. I look where he lies in the coffin, white faced and still. I draw near, bend down and touch lightly with my lips, the white face. Word, over all, beautiful as the sky. Beautiful that war and all its deeds of carnage, must in time, be utterly lost; that the hands of the Sisters Death and Night, incessantly, softly wash again and ever again, this soiled world.”

We appreciate what our defenders of liberty did for you and me. God bless their memories and God Bless America.

“For today we talk of heroes, yet let us talk too of loneliness; let us feel our missing and need to know its meaning. The pain must be felt in its own significance. We come from yesterday and when any part of that dies, a part of us ends, too, and we feel diminished. Let us say goodbye so we can let go, remember and be grateful and learn to hold on in a new way.  When we have said farewell and pause to remember: that which was…we will be able to define better what is, and then contemplate what can be. For as we remember again this day, there grows in us a new recognition of our connections to each other. And when we look up at last, tomorrow will be waiting, and we will go on.”

“As long as we live, let us know that they too will live.  For they are now a part of us, as we remember them."