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Parashat Bamidbar / Shavuot

Dedicated for a Refuah Shelemah for

Simcha Joyce bat Selma Chava Ruth Rena

By the children of Joyce Harary


Parashat Bamidbar / Shavuot

The Census

This week’s parasha, Bamidbar, begins the fourth book of the Chumash. In the second passuk, Hashem says to Moshe, “Take a census of the entire assembly of B’nei Yisrael according to their families, according to their fathers’ households, by the number of the names, every male according to their headcount.”

It is no mystery why the book of Bamidbar is also called Sefer Hapekudim—The Book of Numbers. Rashi comments that Hashem counted the Jewish people many times in the Torah. Obviously, Hashem doesn’t demand a census because He doesn’t know how many Jews there are, chas veshalom. Rather, the act of counting is because of the incredible love Hashem has for us.

What does counting have to do with the love G-d has for us? What is so endearing about a census? Hashem counts B’nei Yisrael frequently, just as a man counts and recounts money that is precious to him. Last week, Parashat Bechukotai described the fearful curses and punishments which would befall B’nei Yisrael if they sinned. When they heard this, they worried Hashem might abandon His people forever if they transgressed. This census reassured them that Hashem has a great and everlasting love for B’nei Yisrael.

The Ramban says we should be inspired by knowing that G-d is counting the Jewish people. Realizing everyone is being thought about and appreciated should make us happy. The Kli Yakar says counting shows that Hashem watches over and cares about each Jew. But even though we are all individuals, we all stand for one thing — we all unite in serving Hashem. We represent the ideal of everything that is good, righteous, and holy. In a world that doesn’t care about or acknowledge Hashem, we commit ourselves firmly to the lofty goal of constantly bringing joy to our Maker and actualizing the purpose of our existence.

Everyone Has a Purpose

The passuk says Hashem commanded Moshe to count the Jews according to the “number of names (1:2).” Sforno says that this count was unlike any other national census. The count indeed kept track of how many Jews there were. However, as each Jew was counted, Hashem gave every name special consideration.

The Sefat Emet cites the Chiddushei Harim, who says that every person has a job in this world that only he can do. Every challenge and opportunity that one has in life is uniquely suited for him according to his strengths and weaknesses. Hashem explicitly hints at this when commanding Moshe Rabbenu to take the census. Every Jew should know that he matters, and his actions profoundly impact the world.

So how do we know what our purpose in this world is? The Vilna Gaon writes that if a person were at a crossroads and not sure in which direction he should go, he would go to a prophet and ask him. However, today the situation has changed. Unfortunately, we no longer have prophets to help us out. Nevertheless, we still have the instructions that will lead us to do exactly what we were put here to do. As long as we strive to stay true to the Torah, keep the mitzvot, and push ourselves to serve Hashem with all our might, Hashem will make sure that we accomplish our goals, and we will be rewarded.

Shlomo Horwitz told an amazing story about a 17-year-old yeshivah student named Rafi who was eager and ready to do mitzvot and change the world. Rafi was on a bus in Jerusalem and having an existential moment, wondering what his purpose in life was. The radio was playing, and the talk-show host interrupted the music to answer an urgent call into the radio station. A young boy called in crying and said, “I’m one of five children. My father died this year, and my mother can’t pay the electric bill. The electric company shut our power, and we’re freezing. We need 1,800 shekalim to have it turned back on.” The radio host got back on and left the number of the station for any donations.

Rafi heard this and immediately decided this was his purpose. He had a mission! He ran off the bus at the next stop, grabbed a pay phone, and called the radio station. He said, “I heard the broadcast, and I’ll raise the money. Tell the family now that everything’s going to be okay!” He opened his wallet, he only had 300 shekalim on him.

He went into store after store to raise the money. He told the store owners, “There was something on the radio…” And the owners said, “Yes! We heard it! Are you that guy that’s going to be collecting?” Rafi said, “Yes, that’s me!” Everyone gave what they could. As soon as the money was raised the money, he promptly dropped it off at the station. The host looked at this young boy in awe and said, “Who are you!” Rafi only gave his first name and left.

Ten years later, Rafi was married with two children, struggling financially as an aspiring rabbi. He told his friend that the electric company had shut off his power because he had an outstanding bill of 3,800 shekalim. Another man overheard them chatting and said, “Wait one second. What’s the meter number on your bill?” Rafi happened to have the bill on him and showed the man. The man pulled out his cell phone, walked out, and came back in to tell Rafi it was all settled, and his power would be turned back on in a few hours. Rafi, shocked, asked, “Why would you do that? How?!” The man said, “It’s not me; it’s my aunt Shoshana. She always told me to call her if anyone ever can’t pay their electric bill.”

Rafi got home and called this lady “Aunt Shoshana” to thank her. Aunt Shoshana said, “Ten years ago, I had just lost my husband, and I was widowed with five kids and couldn’t pay my bill. Some angel out of nowhere raised the money in two hours for me!! What an amazing power of the Jewish people. I told myself that I would do the same for people struggling with their electric bills when my financial situation was better. I don’t know anything about the boy that helped me, just that his name was Rafi.” Rafi told her that he was the boy who helped her ten years ago. They both started to cry and wished each other heartfelt blessings because they recognized the beauty of Am Yisrael, who always look out for each other and are eager to be inspired to serve Hashem.

The Double-Edged Sword of Opportunity and Responsibility

Rabbi Frand brings a powerful lesson about the mitzvah mentioned in this week’s parasha, counting the Jewish people. “Count the entire congregation of Israel by their families, by their fathers’ house” (Bamidbar 1:2). The Medrash comments on the peculiar language of “se-oo et rosh--lift up the heads.” The expression “lift up the heads” found here by the Torah can connote either the greatest heights or the lowest depths. When Yosef tells the Butler that Pharoah will reinstate him to his position of glory he used the same expression “lifting up your head” (Bereishit 40:13). On the other hand, Yosef uses a similar expression in telling the Baker that Pharoah would behead him (Bereishit 40:19).

The Medrash expounds on this specific language in the census by explaining that every Jew has a very special opportunity, coupled with a very special responsibility. People can have tremendous opportunity thrust upon them, and they can choose to use it to rise to the greatest heights. But if they don’t treat it correctly and squander the opportunity, it can lead to tremendous downfall. That is why the Torah employs the language “se-oo et rosh--lift the head.”

Rav Dessler relates that when he was a boy in the late nineteenth century, his home had two beautiful glass dishes. By accident, one day he broke one of the dishes. When his mother found out, she yelled at him terribly. A couple of weeks later, one of the chickens that were running around the house broke the other glass dish. Rav Dessler’s mother picked up the broken pieces and put the chicken back into its cage. Rav Dessler, as a little boy, said, “It’s better to be a chicken.”

He relates that upon reflection — even as a little boy — he recognized his error. He could eat at the table and get real food, while the chicken was kicked around and got fed dry corn, etc. He concluded that it was in fact better to be a person.

The moral of the story is that – yes, a chicken has less responsibility and less to worry about, but it remains a chicken, nothing more. A person has tremendous responsibility, but also tremendous privilege and opportunity. It is only when we squander and ruin this opportunity that we may ask, “why do I need this?” We must know that there is opportunity associated with being a part of the Chosen People, and this great privilege comes together with responsibilities.

Why So Few Leviim?

Rabbi Frand says that the Torah records that after Moshe did the census of Bnei Yisrael, he counted the Tribe of Levi separately. The Leviim were enumerated from one month old and above (3:15), adding up to 22,000. The Ramban asks a fundamental demographic question. “The male population of the Tribe of Levi, counted from thirty days and up, numbered less than half of the next smallest Tribe, even though all the rest of the tribes were counted only from the age of twenty years and above!” The Ramban asks, “Why were there so few Leviim?”

The Ramban suggests an answer to this question. He says this corroborates Chazal’s teaching on the passuk “As [the Egyptians] persecuted [the Jews], so did they multiply and so did they expand (Shemot 1:12).” The more the Egyptians tried to minimize the Jewish Nation through bondage and persecution, the more Hashem blessed the Israelites and allowed the women to have multiple births, creating a population explosion.

Chazal teach that the Tribe of Levi was not subjected to the bondage of slavery. They were free from the work and the persecution suffered by the other tribes. Therefore, since they were not part of the persecution, they also were not part of the blessing of the population explosion. Consequently, their total population at the end of the period of Egyptian slavery was much smaller than that of the other tribes.

Though the tribe of Levi was small, they were righteous, with a strong sense of empathy. Rabbi Baruch Rosenblum brings down a beautiful chiddush from the Sefat Emet about the famous passuk in Parashat Shemot. The passuk says, “And B’nei Yisrael cried out, and their cry for help from the bondage rose up to G-d.” The Sefat Emet says it wasn’t the whole Jewish Nation crying out to Hashem. When people are enslaved and doing brutal labor, they have no time or strength to cry about their pain. Pharaoh did not let them have that luxury. Rather, the tribe of Levi cried on behalf of their brothers, who were working until they were broken. The Leviim were not forced to work, but they empathized with their fellow Jews and cried out to Hashem as if it were their own pain. Therefore, they were rewarded with serving Hashem in the Bet Hamikdash.

A Shared Shavuot

This coming up week is the yom tov of Shavuot. At the time of Matan Torah – the giving of the Torah, the passuk uses the language “vayeechan—and he camped” (singular) at the foot of the mountain (Shemot 19:2). Our Sages tell us that the singular usage of the word ‘vayeechan’ implies that they were united in purpose like one man with one heart.

It is such a mind-blowing concept, millions of Jews standing together to accept the Torah. Rabbi Frand shares a time when he received a new appreciation for “one man, one heart.” I was at the 1990 Siyum HaShaas in Madison Square Garden. 22,000 G-d fearing Jews gathered to celebrate the Torah learning. It was truly an amazing sight.

If one looked over the crowd, one could see such a beautiful diversity of people. I was sitting next to a Chassidishe fellow — round hat, Kappata, peyot, the works. Next to him was a fellow in a business suit, with a starched white shirt and a bow-tie. One looked around and saw Sephardim, Ashkenazim, Litvaks, Chassidim, Misnagdim. I saw people there that if I would have seen them on the street, I wouldn’t have even suspected they knew there was such a thing as “Daf Yomi.”

Unfortunately. there are so many things that we disagree about, but there is one common denominator. There is one thing that cuts across and transcends everything. That is Torah. It is the same Torah for me, for the Chassid, for the Sephardi, for the lawyer with the bowtie and the Rabbi with the long coat. It is Torah. The “like one man, with one heart” accomplished that.

Four thousand years ago we were all there at Har Sinai, without divisiveness, without disputes, and without hatred, for one common goal — to receive the Torah. That event in history made it possible for 22,000 people to come together from different backgrounds, but with one thing in common — the study of Torah.

I ask, about how many things in life can we say it is going to be exactly the same 7 years from now? That is what Torah is all about. It is the bedrock of our life. Our nation is not a nation except through the Torah. Therefore, the Yom Tov of Shavuot is the most wonderful of all holidays. If not for this glorious day, where would we all be?

May we always feel Hashem’s love and know that he is continuously counting us because we are precious to Him. May we find our individual purposes in life. May we go above and beyond to love our brothers and sisters, so we can leave a beautiful legacy. Amen!

Discussion Point:

Can you think of another purpose for the census?

Shabbat Shalom and Good Yom Tov!

Rabbi Amram Sananes as written by Jack Rahmey

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