To be counted is more than just taking a number

Numbers 1:1 – 4:20
Hosea 2:1 – 2:22

The air is muggy and warm at the mikvah in San Francisco. I have stood at the edge of the waters numerous times, a witness to this holy act that completes the path to becoming a Jew. The candidate for conversion enters the living waters of the mikvah, symbolic of her immersion into Jewish tradition. In the same way that the waters surround her, the Jewish people embrace and warmly welcome her into our midst.

For a convert, the mikvah is the culminating step following an intense time of study, reflection, practice and commitment. Our tradition teaches that the convert is more precious to God than the person who is a born a Jew because he came to Judaism on his own accord. Today, we call converts, “Jews by choice” because they have chosen to cast their lot with the Jewish people.

The Jews by choice in our communities are indeed worthy of recognition and praise. We can all learn from them what it means to embrace Judaism and to deliberately count ourselves among the Jewish people.

The rabbis taught that this week’s Torah portion, Bamidbar, the first portion in the Book of Numbers, always precedes Shavuot, the holiday when we affirm our commitment to Torah and Judaism. Two reasons are given — one relating to the Hebrew name of this book of the Torah and the other to the English name.

The Hebrew name Bamidbar, which means “in the wilderness,” refers to the wilderness of Sinai, the place where Israel received the Torah. The Talmud further states, “Torah was given in the wilderness (bamidbar) to teach that we must consider ourselves open like the wilderness in order to learn Torah.” (Nedarim 55b)

The English name refers to the opening lines of this portion in which God instructs Moses to take a census of the whole Israelite community. God says, “Seu et rosh,” “take a census,” or literally, “lift up the head.” (Numbers 1:2)

Rashi commented that God counted Israel because of God’s love for them. In other words, just as we count the people and things that matter to us, so God counts every Jew as a partner in the Covenant. The census is a sign that God loves and needs each of us.

It follows then that we would read these verses right before Shavuot, the time when we are asked to stand and be counted, the time when we are asked to embrace Torah. The holiday reminds us that we all stood at Sinai. We all received Torah. We all were counted. Shavuot concludes the period of counting the omer. For 49 days preceding Shavuot, we are reminded that we must continue to count and be counted.

On Shavuot, we also recall the person whom the rabbis consider the first convert, the first non-Israelite to formally cast her lot and be counted among the Jewish people: Ruth. As Ruth clung to her mother-in-law, Naomi, she uttered the words: “Wherever you go, I shall go; wherever you lodge, I shall lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.” (Ruth 1:16) She was the first Jew by choice.

Today we are all Jews by choice. Every Jew alive today, whether born to Jewish parents or not, is faced with decisions about how to be a Jew. All Jews today must make the choice about what kind of Jew we want to be.

Contemporary author, Anita Diamant, has written, “A Jew by choice is not someone who makes a single decision called conversion; a Jew by choice is someone who makes a home inside the act of Jewish choosing.” Today, we are all faced with the challenge to feel at home making Jewish choices.

As the time to be counted approaches, think about the Jewish choices you make. Consider the responsibilities that come with being counted — responsibilities to family, community, the Jewish people, the world. Reflect on how being Jewish lifts up your head and your soul.

Like the waters of the mikvah, the Jewish people embrace you.

Rabbi Karen S. Citrin is the associate rabbi at Reform Peninsula Temple Beth El in San Mateo.