May 30-31st, 2003
29 Iyar, 5763
I am typing this parsha sheet in my small and crowded office. There is
hardly any free space on the floor to walk, due to the piles of books and
periodicals placed (dumped?) all around, and barely any open space desk
space, amidst all the papers and pads, on which to rest my laptop. Torah
volumes (shelved in no particular order) crowd the bookcases (and the
desk), while numberless files and folders (containing notes from past
classes I’ve given) form stacks climbing halfway to the ceiling. Call me
the "King Clutter!"
Now, to be fair, I do feel some degree of pride that it is not quite the
height of disorder at the present time. It has not been officially
designated a "disaster area," thereby becoming eligible for federal
cleanup funding. (Before I did my Pesach cleaning a few months ago, it
might have been.) But it ain’t a pretty sight all the same, I’m sorry to
say. When visitors happen to steal a glance in here--if I forget to shut
the door to conceal the shame, that is--, their faces invariably register
a mixture of sympathy and deep frustration. I immediately think of some
old T.V. commercial showing a deflated housecleaner at the end of her wits
(or is it a harried mother desperately trying to get her children to eat
their dinner?): "There has to be a better way…"
Why have I revealed to you these details of my home life? Is it only to
praise my dear wife, who, unlike me (thank G-d), is a true paragon of
orderliness and domestic efficiency--not to mention her myriad other
stellar qualities? Is it merely, through a bit of lightheartedness, to
attempt to ease her burden in life a bit (when she reads this), for having
bravely chosen as her husband and lifelong companion, the "King of
No, my friends, there is something else as well. The topic of orderliness,
that trait in which I am admittedly a bit deficient (but trying to
improve), is indeed connected to this week’s Torah portion.
The Book of Numbers (Bamidbar) opens with a detailed description of the
census that G-d commanded Moshe and Aharon to make just one month after
the inauguration of the Tabernacle (Mishkan). Though there had been
another count less than a year previously (following the punishment for
the sin of the Golden Calf), Hashem wished to have another one at this
Ramban explains (among other reasons) that since the Jewish people were
supposed to enter immediately into the Land of Israel, a census by tribal
affiliation was needed for the impending military action and for the
subsequent distribution of the Land. On a more poetic note, Rashi cites
the teaching that G-d’s frequent commands to count the Jewish
people--when, of course, He full well knows the tally already--is a sign
of His great love for us. He wants us to appreciate how precious is each
and every individual, and each family unit, in the eyes of the Almighty,
and how all are equally essential in carrying out our collective purpose
of living as a "holy nation."
Further, our Sages tell us that just as Hashem has His "legions" in the
heavens--the countless stars and heavenly bodies--so, too, He has His
corresponding "legions" here on earth: the Jewish people, K’lal Yisrael.
We are spiritual fighters for Hashem and His Torah in the world, and just
as a Commander-in-Chief formally reviews the count of his troops, so
Hashem meant to inspire us with a sense of our mission by commanding a
census numerous times. (On the topic of "fighters for Hashem," note that
this is how some commentators explain our very name, Yisrael-Israel, first
given to Ya’akov after he defeated the angel of Esav in that mysterious
wrestling match back in the book of Genesis. "Fighter for Hashem.")
An army must be a model of precision and orderliness if it is to succeed.
And anyone reviewing this parsha must be struck by the orderliness and
precision of the way G-d commanded the Jewish people to be numbered, and
arranged, in the wilderness. The census was taken, "of the entire Assembly
of the Children of Israel according to their families, according to their
fathers’ household." Everyone was encamped with his or her particular
tribe, and each tribe stationed in a precise position around the
Tabernacle--three tribes on each side of the Tabernacle. "The Children of
Israel shall encamp, each man by his banner according to the insignias of
their fathers’ household, at a distance surrounding the Tent of Meeting
[the centerpiece of the Tabernacle]." They kept these precise tribal
positions when they would travel in the desert. (Details of their
procession are found later in the book, in the parsha of Beha’aloscha.)
The Levites were in charge of transporting the Tabernacle, and its holy
vessels, and all the precise details of just how it was to be done are
outlined in these opening portions of the Book of Numbers.
Orderliness and precision: without a doubt, they form a key motif of the
In the beautiful collection of insights on the Torah portion, Lekach Tov,
the author explains at length (based on this parsha) the immense
importance of orderliness in our spiritual lives! Our great ethical
teachers always stressed that orderliness in the "small" details of our
external lives--like, er, desks, offices, dressers and the like--is a
reliable indication of the orderliness of our inner lives. They understood
that you cannot realize your individual potential in Torah and the service
of G-d without mastering the trait of orderliness ("seder," in Hebrew).
They realized that to acquire this trait (or any other positive
attribute), one must apply it in ALL areas of life--i.e., in the way your
desktop is arranged and your clothes are laid out, just as much as in the
way you arrange (and carry out) your Torah learning sessions.
The great yeshiva of Kelm was legendary for inculcating the trait of
orderliness in all one’s affairs. If a student was negligent in this area,
it was looked on as a serious spiritual deficiency, a blemish that would
inevitably affect the way they studied and practiced Torah. (Not to
mention the basic disruption it could cause to their peace of mind in
genera.) The story is told that once Rav Simcha Zissel, the "Alter of Kelm"
(the leader of the yeshiva in that town), went to visit one of his sons
who was studying in another city. Before going to meet him personally, he
first would stop by the room where he was boarding to have a look. If he
saw that his son’s possessions were in order, and everything was tidy and
well-maintained, he was confident--on the basis of that fact alone-- that
the boy was progressing favorably!
Our greatest sages were (like my wife!) paragons of the trait of
orderliness and cleanliness, down to the "smallest detail" of their lives.
(But, of course, there are no small details, spiritually speaking.) The
external order achieved by them mirrored--and, I’m sure, helped to
reinforce--their internal order.
Please understand. We’re not talking about some neurotic, Felix Ungar-type
neatness compulsion. We’re ultimately referring to what is now called,
"being centered," an inner sense of having things together, of being in
control of the details of one’s life. This is what the trait of seder, of
orderliness, is all about.
I’m not saying that we all have to be experts of this attribute (yet)…but
that to succeed ultimately in attaining holiness, in scaling the ladder of
service of G-d, one needs to at least be working on becoming a more
orderly person. The truth is, to become successful at any endeavor
requires order and schedule and regularity. Benjamin Franklin, in his
famous autobiography (which, by the way, was prized by some of our great
ethical teachers of recent generations for this reason), revealed himself
to be as precise and orderly as a bookkeeper in seeking to attain the
ethical goals he set for himself. Ask any successful business person, and
I’m sure you’ll find a similar exactitude and precision in the way things
are carried out.
It may be a bitter pill for me to swallow, but I guess I must face the
truth. A disordered desk may or may not be a sure sign of genius (as
cutesy plaques and knicknacks often proclaim)…but it is, most
indisputably, a sign of disorder! And it is also indisputable that the
genius (or regular guy) in question would be no worse off, and most likely
much better off, if his desk--or office--were neat, clean and orderly.
This is one reason the Torah goes to such lengths to describe how orderly
the Jewish people were in their travels, and encampments, in the desert.
And this trait relates to the upcoming Shavuos holiday as well (believe it
or not). The Torah tells us that the Jewish people were completely unified
("Like one person, with one heart, " Rashi explains) before G-d gave them
the Torah. That kind of unity--as Lekach Tov points out--necessitates the
ultimate in interpersonal "orderliness." Every individual knows his or her
place, and appreciates his or her own potential, while acknowledging the
rightful place (and great potential) of each and every OTHER person in
K’lal Yisrael. No one tries to invade the space, or appropriate the role,
of the other. At the communal level, unity means everything is in its
proper place and functioning efficiently, and all members of the Jewish
people are at their post--joined in their common goal. (Disputes, on the
other hand, denote a departure from proper order and orderliness.) A lean,
mean, (spiritual) fighting machine! Such a state of unity, and communal
consciousness, was a prerequisite for receiving G-d’s Torah…and it is what
we must strive for as we prepare for the upcoming festival.
We have seen how Seder is an attribute, a quality of life and mind, that
we should all try to acquire to the best of our ability if we want to
realize our potential in this world (which is our ultimate goal).
Hear that, honey? (This is to my wife.) Maybe one day, after some devoted
effort, your King of Clutter will become the…Sultan of Seder. I just have
to learn to follow your example (in this, as in everything else) a bit
better. It’s gonna be the neatest little office
you ever saw…and y’all (this is to everybody else out there) will be
invited to come by and marvel.
‘Till then…GOOD SHABBOS (AND HAPPY CLEANING)!
My e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
Into Genesis |
Insights Into Exodus |
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Insights into Numbers |
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