As my three years in Detroit come to a close, I wanted to tie my time here to the Torah portion. This weekend is Shavuot. On Shavuot we read the ten commandments. I thought to myself, Ten commandments, great — I’ll just make a list of the ten things I love about Temple Israel and the Detroit Jewish Community, easy peasy. Done and done.
Except that the Torah portion for Shavuot is a special Torah Portion you read on Shavuot no matter when Shavuot falls, and that this Shabbat’s Torah Portion is, in fact, Bamidbar, the beginning of the Book of Numbers. So instead of the ten commandments, fire and brimstone and this incredibly moving moment in our history as we mark acceptance of our covenant as God’s chosen people, I got the emotional rollercoaster that is the census of the Israelites in the desert, and the logistical layout of their campground. Awesome.
But I am the son of a Rabbi and a day school kid, so I put on my big boy pants and went to look at the text. Who knew, maybe there’s a hidden gem in there? Maybe I would get lucky and in between “there are this many Levites” and “the tribe of Judah sleeps here,” there would miraculously be “and here is the hidden gem that Spike will need in a couple thousand years to write his goodbye to Jewish Detroit.” No such luck. But it turns out there are some hidden gems if you know where to look. Which honestly I should have assumed because that’s basically the Torah’s whole shtick.
So here in Badmidbar, we count the Israelites. Not for the first time in the Torah and not for the last. Honestly God counts the Israelites so much it kind of feels like God is Scrooge McDuck and the Israelites are God’s pile of gold coins. Here in this census however, we get not one, but two different Hebrew words for counting. In this week’s portion, God says to Moses “ach et matey Levi lo tifkod” (you shall not count the tribe of Levi). Presumably they’re being singled out from the rest of the community and will be counted in a separate category. Lo tifkod (don’t count), from the root pakad (to count).
And then the very next phrase, “v’et rosham lo tisah” — and also don’t count their heads among the children of Israel. Lo tisah. Again, don’t count. But this time from the root nasah (to count). So what’s the deal? Why do we get two different words for the same action — why not just use one and save ink? It’s because these words for "count" have secondary meanings. The next time we see both of these words, they mean something totally different. God says "Hafked et halevi’im al hamishkan" (appoint the Leviites over the Mishkan), so here pakad means to appoint. Then with the very next phrase we see heima yisu et haMishkan (they’re going to carry the Mishkan). The word yisu here doesn’t mean count; it means to carry or lift. It raises the question, what is the connection between counting and appointing? Between counting and lifting?
If you read the text, you see that anytime the word nasah is used to mean counting, it is paired with some form of se’u et rosh (count the heads). But now it’s not just "count the heads" — it’s also "lift up the heads." Here there is an affirmation in being counted as part of the community. It is not just that you count as a physical member of the community, but by being part of the community, you are actually lifted up, strengthened, and made better for it.
The reason there are so many censuses in the Torah is not just to make sure we didn’t lose any stragglers. We have so many censuses because each is a reminder of the power and responsibility of community to lift up its members.
For the last three years, I have been lifted immeasurably higher by this community. Little known fact: joining the team at Temple Israel was not my first choice when Casey and I moved here three years ago. My dream has always been to be a full time touring Jewish artist and educator. When we decided to move to Michigan, I tried (and failed) to make that leap in my career. When the Cantors and Rabbi Lader invited me to join as your Zipser Foundation Artist in Residence, it felt like a consolation prize. I didn’t know then how wrong I was — and how much I needed this community. How being counted as a member of Detroit and the Temple Israel community would change my life forever.
You lifted me up by welcoming me so warmly from the very first service experience, even if (at times) my energy and certain musical choices may have felt like a bit too much for you. You lifted me up by coming to my programming and by singing my melodies out loud. You lifted me up by supporting recording projects, both monetarily and programmatically, by giving me opportunities to compose new melodies, and spaces to share them.
You lifted me up by trusting me with diverse challenges over these three years, by not just asking me to do the same thing over and over again. I became a better composer, a more nuanced teacher and a more intentional service leader — because you counted me among your community. You lifted me up (and quite literally saved my life) by counting me as a member of your community in the middle of a global pandemic. When every organization in the world was having difficult conversations about budgets and staffing, this community said, You count, you’re one of us.
In the fall, when Casey and I move back to New York, I’m going to start touring full time. And the difference this time is that I spent three years being counted as a member of this community: singing, creating, learning, sharing, teaching, writing, re-writing and re-imaging the work that I do. None of what I’m on track to do would have been possible without you.
I figured you should get one more song out of me before I leave. While reflecting on all the ways being counted as a member of this community has strengthened me, I immediately thought of Chazak, Chazak, V’nitchazek — be strong, and we will be strengthened. It’s the phrase we say when we finish a book of the Torah (which, if you were really paying attention at the beginning, you will realize is perfect for this Shabbat, as we finished the book of Leviticus last Shabbat and are starting the book of Numbers this Shabbat). I also thought of milestones — of moving on to new chapters, and the saying we pull from the Psalms m’chayil el chayil — may you go from strength to strength.
And so in a minute, I want to leave you with this blessing that I wrote, ironically, on Delta Flight 4863 from Detroit Metropolitan Airport to JFK … kinda on the nose, right? I wove those two phrases together in the chorus: chazak chazak, m’chayil el chayil, nitchazek.
Be strong, be strong. From strength to strength, we will be strengthened.
Thank you for strengthening me, for teaching me, for trusting me and for counting me.
From Strength to Strength
By: Jacob Spike Kraus
May you go from strength to strength
As you start this brand new chapter
May your days be filled with laughter
And your nights be filled with peace
May you learn to sing a brand new song
With those who join to sing along
These are the links that make you strong
In your community…
M’chayil el chayil nitchazek
May you live to see the dawning
Of one thousand new beginnings
Hear one thousand angels singing
Set one thousand worries free
May you come to know that life moves fast
If you don’t slow down it goes right past
So cling to those who make it last
That’s your community…(chazak)
May your heart be filled with wonder
As you carry on this journey
May you never lose that yearning
For the road that lies ahead
And even though that rocky road
Goes sometimes high and sometimes low
Just know no matter where you go
We’re your community…(chazak)