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Parashat Bamidbar

Dedicated Leilui Nishmat

Yaffa bat Sarah, Janet Safdieh, A’H,

by her family.

Parashat Bamidbar

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 will raise the money. Tell the family now that everything is going to be okay!” He opened his wallet and started with the 300 shekalim he had 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!” He quickly got donations of 50 shekalim, 100 shekalim, 700 shekalim, 20 shekalim; everyone gave what they could. He raised the money and 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 Shoshana with his wife 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.

A Rabbi and A Father

And these are the descendants of Aharon and Moshe at the time that G-d spoke to Moshe on Mount Sinai (3:1).” The next passuk states the names of Aharon’s sons, listing them as the descendants of Aharon and Moshe. Rashi comments that this is because Moshe taught Aharon’s sons Torah. The Gemara clarifies, “Whoever teaches the son of his friend Torah, the Torah considers it as if he fathered them (Sanhedrin 19b).”

Based on this logic, the Maharal says that the Torah should say that the entire Jewish Nation was like Moshe’s sons. He answers that Rashi is making a specific point here. Although Moshe taught Torah to all of Israel, he’d taken extra time and care with his nephews, Aharon’s sons. Indeed, he taught Torah to everyone, but he went the extra mile to explain and review the Torah with his nephews. The Maharal says that a parent is determined by the willingness to go the extra mile.

Rabbi Frand told a story he heard from Rav Shiya Fishman, the Executive Vice President of Torah U’Messorah. Rav Fishman had been a student of Rav Yitzchok Hutner (1907-1980) and related the following beautiful story involving his teacher.

When Rav Fishman was a young man in kollel, he had a child with a severe medical condition. He went to his rabbi, Rav Hutner, unburdened himself with his problems, covered his face with his hands, and broke down in tears. After a few minutes, when he recovered, he looked back at Rav Hutner and saw that the rabbi was crying too. The disciple’s pain was the teacher’s pain.

If one ever wonders why Rav Hutner was so successful in raising hundreds of such special students, the reason is clear. Rav Hutner was not merely a teacher to his students but also their father! The Torah refers to this type of rabbi, when it refers to Moshe as the father of Aharon’s children, who truly went beyond the call of duty to become like a parent.

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 passukAs [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.

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 be there to nurture our nation’s children, so we can leave a beautiful legacy. Amen!

Discussion Point:

  • Can you think of another purpose for the census?

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Amram Sananes as written by Jack Rahmey

Etz Haim

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