Bamidbar and Shavuot
Did you see the results of the latest census?
The final tally comes out to 603,550 Israelite males (non-Levites) from the ages of twenty through sixty, and an additional 22,000 Levites (from the age of one month). 22,273 of those Israelites are first-borns.
We're referring, of course, to the latest census in this week's parsha, Bamidbar. The year is 1311 BCE. The place: the Sinai Desert. Counting method: not mailed out computer forms. We Jews even count differently (at least when it comes to counting people). The Torah does not permit us to count Jews directly, as in: "You're number one, you're number two, you're number three…" Rather, every Jew had to donate a half-shekel silver coin and all those half-shekels were counted up.
We've all heard already that Jews aren't supposed to eat like everybody else. We're not supposed to speak like everybody else. But why can't we count people like everybody else?
There is an explicit verse in the Torah that addresses this particular issue (Exodus 30:12, with commentary of Rashi). I'll let you look that up yourselves. Here, we'll examine a less apparent aspect of our question (as is our manner in Parsha Views). Censuses can be as confusing as they are clarifying. Is the big picture the main picture? Or are the millions of personal stories the real story? Is a census's message that we're all just numbers (Social Security numbers, credit card numbers…)? Are we blindly pursuing the greatest good for the greatest number, counting on the end justifying the means?
The Torah's census was a little different. You couldn't just send in your half-shekel in the mail. Every Jew had to come to the Mishkan (Tabernacle) and present himself before Moshe and Aaron and the princes of Israel. Moshe and Aaron gave every Jew an individual audience, offering prayers for them (Ramban, Numbers 1:45).
This is not the most efficient way to take a census; at least not if all you care about is the final tally. The Jewish census was something more. Its goal was twofold: to include every Jew in the greater whole of Israel, while simultaneously recognizing that each Jew is unique, possessing the particular potential to make an indispensable contribution to the community. The whole is lacking if even the contribution of one Jew is left out.
Every person ever born was born into a unique life situation, with a unique combination of strengths and talents that will never be duplicated in all of history. Thus, G-d desires a unique contribution from each of us. That is both our personal goal and our role in our communities. We not only can contribute to the community our unique talents; that is exactly what our communities need from us; they are incomplete without it. This is the idea behind the mystical teaching that the soul of every Jew is rooted in one letter in the Torah. Just as a Torah Scroll is invalid if even one letter is missing, so too, Israel is incomplete if the latent potential of even one Jew is unrealized.
The upcoming Festival of Shavuos, celebrating the giving of the Torah, focuses on the unity of the Jewish People, achieved at Mount Sinai. "Israel encamped before the mountain" (Exodus 19:2). The Hebrew word here for "encamped" is "vayichan", which is conjugated in the singular. Why would the Torah describe a multitude of Jews with a singular verb form? This, Rashi notes, demonstrates that the Jewish people were encamped before Mount Sinai "like one person with one heart."
The Torah could only be given to a complete and united nation. That's why the Torah wasn't given to Avraham, Yitzchak or Yaakov. It could only be given to their descendents, who emerged as an independent nation from Egypt. Yet the unity required for receiving the Torah does not contradict the necessary contributions of each individual. Every Jew has a portion in Torah, in understanding and fulfilling the Torah, that is all his or her own. With our unique life experiences, with the difficult trials that each of us has privately faced, we all possess unique paths of insight into G-d's message to humankind. We all possess singular gifts, refined by the gusts and storms that have molded their unique impressions into our characters. These are the contributions we can share with the world.
Parshas Bamidbar goes on to describe the particular formation of the Jewish camp in the desert. The Mishkan was erected in the middle, surrounded by the Levites, and then surrounded by the other twelve tribes. The tribe of Yehuda camped in front, on the East, joined by Yissacher and Zevullin. Dan encamped in the South, joined by Asher and Naftali. Reuven encamped in the North, joined by Shimon and Gad. Ephraim camped in the rear, joined by Menasheh and Binyamin. This preset arrangement corresponds to the unique contribution each tribe had to make to Israel, each in its special way.
This national arrangement of different components is similar to the orchestration of different instruments in a symphony. If every instrument was identical (say, all violins), it wouldn't be a symphony. Only because an orchestra is comprised of many different instruments, each one's part arranged in precision, is its sound so rich in depth. This orchestra, in its grandest scale, is the Jewish People, to whom G-d bestowed the Torah.
So tune up your strings! Tighten yours bows. The orchestra is already playing. The sound is rich and beautiful, but it will only resonate richer when we all join in.
Good Shabbos and Good Yom Tov,
Insights Into Exodus
Insights Into Leviticus
Insights into Numbers
Miss the Kollel’s Thursday Night Parsha
Class at 8:00 PM in the BB Chapel.
To get in touch with STEP, call Rabbi Shulman at (912) 303-9591 or Rabbi
Edelstein at (912) 351-0469. E-mail us at STEPKollel@netzero.net
Call us, or we'll call you.
Printed at the Ben Portman Computer Center
This Dvar Torah page created and hosted
courtesy of OU.ORG. No responsibility for its contents may be
implied or taken by the OU