Just Torah: Who counts?

Almost every one of these children can be rehabilitated – and flourish, “thrive” – if placed in a permanent, loving family.

Footsteps on sand (illustrative) (photo credit: REUTERS)
Footsteps on sand (illustrative)
(photo credit: REUTERS)
In the desert, God tells us to count the people, a “counter,” I suppose, to the undefinedness of the vast sand. Rashi reads this as an expression of God’s love – a way, we might say today, to show that each of us matters.
That resonates deeply with me, as I imagine it does for many of us. We understand the need to identify each child in our care, each person accounted for in the wake of an earthquake or fire. We all know stories of successful adults who, as at-risk children, had a teacher who took note of her or him, who made them feel counted, important, potential- filled. And that made all the difference.
“Vayafkidem” is the word the Torah uses: “And he counted them,” as opposed to more commonly used words for counting, such as sofer or moneh, the latter being used for substantive counting, such as making your days, your life, “count.” But the root of vayafkidem, PaKaD, has a more specific and relational power found in pakod pakad’ti, “I will surely remember you” (Exodus 3:16).
This is the promise of redemption that Moses uttered in Egypt, the phrase that Serah, the daughter of Asher, who was adopted, recognized as proof that Moses was sent by God to lead the Children of Israel out of Egypt. She said: “This is the man who will redeem Israel from Egypt, for I heard from my father, ‘[God] will take notice (pakod yifkod).’” It was then that “the people were convinced, when they heard that the Lord had taken note (pakad) of the Israelites.”
Later in the parasha, God adds another command to count – this time, children from the age of one month.
Perhaps, I imagine, it is so that we should cast our eyes toward the smallest and most vulnerable in the undifferentiated desert.
That addition caught my eye because I’ve been thinking a lot this week about counting – or, rather, not counting – the most vulnerable. The US State Department is responsible for annual human rights reports enumerating the abuses around the world. But there is one distinct population that is uniquely vulnerable – and ignored: children outside of family care who live in institutions, children who need to be adopted. Their lack of human rights are decidedly not named.
Save the Children reports that there are between eight million and 12 million children in institutions worldwide. That means that those responsible for children’s well-being are estimating their numbers by plus-or-minus millions. And what is happening to these children? Babies lined up like cattle staring at white ceilings – causing a loss of eyesight for lack of optic nerve stimulation. Development stunted physically, emotionally, intellectually (basically you can subtract an IQ point a month). Children self-flagellating – so desperate for touch that they hit themselves. Tragically, there’s more to the list of what we grown-ups generalize as “failure to thrive” – an understatement if there ever was one. There is hope, however.
Almost every one of these children can be rehabilitated – and flourish, “thrive” – if placed in a permanent, loving family. But that is not going to happen if the State Department continues to ignore these children.
There is now a bill before Congress, drafted by Rep. Tom Marino (R-Pennsylvania) and Rep. David Cicilline (D-Rhode Island), that would require the State Department to include violations of unparented children’s rights, particularly the unnecessary holding of children in institutions, in its annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices.
It is an urgent, necessary bill to force the powerful to count the vulnerable. Only then will children, like Serah bat Asher, become beloved sons and daughters through adoption, allowing them to become both redeemed and, perhaps, too, redeemers.
The writer is the author of the best-selling book Casting Lots: Creating a Family in a Beautiful, Broken World. You can catch her on NPR’s Fresh Air program with Terry Gross and with her sister, comedian Sarah Silverman, on The View. Follow her at @rabbasusan, communityadoption.org and rabbisusansilverman.com