Bamidbar: The Right Response

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29 May 2008

Three statisticians go deer hunting with bows and arrows. They spot a big buck and take aim. One shoots and his arrow flies off three meters to the right. The second shoots and his arrow flies off three meters to the left. The third statistician jumps up and down yelling; We got him! We got him!

The story is not always to be found in the numbers – but it usually means you’re on to something.

Consider that the 12 tribes of Israel totaled 603,550 men between the ages of 20-60 with the average tribe arriving at 50,295.83 (1) (I feel bad for the .83 guy). Now consider that the Levi’im totaled 22,300 – a remarkable gap of 11,000 from the 12th place tribe (Shimon). Top it off by factoring in that the Levi’im were counted (separately) from the age of only one month and up and our question becomes an enigma wrapped in a mystery. (Social scientists would probably chalk it up to the levi’im’s penchant for red meat or not eating vegetables)

So what’s the story behind the numbers?

Ten basic approaches follow (there must be more.) They range from the rational to the mystical, the mundane to the sublime, the textual to the utter midrashic.

1. Ramban(2) #1: The Levi’im were not enslaved (3). Thus they did not merit the blessing of commensurate inverse multiplication described in Shemos (1:12, as they were oppressed so they multiplied ka’asher yeanu oto kein yirbeh)

2. Ramban #2: The Levi’im fell prey to the curse of Yaakov (4).

3. Rashi(5), Chizkuni: The Levi’im mishandled the Holy Ark, a fatal mistake.

4. Be’er Yosef/R.Chaim Vital: The Egyptians prevented the Jews from observing mikveh. Miraculously (R. Chaim Vital) or naturally (trauma), the women of Israel that were subject to servitude, did not experience their menstrual cycle – thus obviating the need for mikveh and allowing them to procreate more freely. The Levi’im who were not subject to servitude did not receive this blessing

5. Beis Halevi (same notion referenced by Kli Yakar): – The Levi’im were supported by the rest of Klal Yisroel. To ease their financial burden, Hashem kept their numbers low.

6. Kli Yakar (6) #1: A pruning process was necessary to ensure that only the righteous would engage in the mikdash service

7. Kli Yakar # 3: – God’s most precious commodities are the rarest. (Consider Bnei Yisrael vs. the world)

8. Netziv (7) #1: For deep philosophical reasons, Hashem requires greater accountability for the righteous in this world. The Levi’im always kept the Torah and were held to a higher standard(8).
9. Netziv #2: A tree grows slowly until it finally produces fruit. The taller and more prominent the tree, the longer it takes before it bears fruit. Man is like a tree. The Levi’im were the tallest of all trees.

10. Ohr HaChaim, Kli Yakar: As a response to Pharaoh’s decree of killing the male first born children, the Levi’im following Amram’s lead, separated from their wives. Even when Amram returned, his was a unique situation dictated by prophetic initiative (9) and thus they remain separated. Bnei Yisrael, however returned to their wives.

Each answer has its problems(10). Each approach has its take home lesson/s. In many solutions, one can see the remarkable Divine sense of humor(11) that davka multiplies the downtrodden masses – those whom Pharaoh took aim at diminishing and ultimately destroying.

I find myself drawn to the final approach – one that centers upon a halachic question. In this approach, it is not the Divinely choreographed circumstance (e.g. Levi’s lack of servitude) that dictates the distinct destinies of Levi and Klal Yisrael; it is rather the human response to that difficult reality. We might characterize the Levi’im as adopting a separatist approach while the rest of the Jewish people ultimately remained family oriented.

The separatists did not want to accomplice murder(12) – the inevitable result of bringing a boy into the world (pre designer genes). Bnei Yisrael reasoned that such logic, reductio ad absurdum, surely spells the death knell of the Jewish people. “Your decree is worse than Pharaoh – for you have decreed on the males and females” is the poignant refrain of little Miriam(13) to her father Amram. Her argument is philosophical not halachic. Surely Amram knows there is a distinction between active murder and passive non procreation. Refraining from having children doth not murder make.

Having children that most likely will be brought to slaughter is an entirely different matter. Ay, you might ask: “what will be of our people” if we don’t procreate? It’s a shtarke kasha (a good question). The answer must be: B’hadei kavshei d’rachmana lamah lach. Why meddle in God’s affairs? Do what’s right and God will provide. It is not our job to reason why – it is ours to do or die.

Who was right? Bnei Yisrael or Shevet Levi? Stunning parallels can be brought in examining Holocaust responsa. Is the right approach Kiddush Hachaim or Kiddush Hashem? Of course, they need not always be exclusionary – but at times these approaches will surely collide.

Those mirrors on the kiyor (holy basin) in the Mishkan (Tabernacle) might illuminate (14). To Moshe they were initially repulsive, to Hashem, they represented the righteousness of the great women of Israel, who in the darkest days, allured their husbands to ensure the perpetuity of the Jewish people. In their merit, we were redeemed. Those mirrors, Hashem says to Moshe are the most precious to me – they must be on the kiyor.

Ah hah! – So Bnei Yisrael were correct!?

Netunim netunim heima li b’toch bnei Yisrael(15). For the tribe of Levi is dedicated to me – from amongst klal yisrael. They are My dedicated workers in the mishkan/mikdash. Ironically, it is their descendants that wash from the kiyor.

So whose right – Shall the numbers decide? I care not of numbers – says God! I chose you – didn’t I? Lo merubcham chashak Hashem bachem ki atem hameat mikol ha’amim(16).

At the end of the days, the Talmud relates that Hashem will draw a circle with the righteous pointing to him and proclaiming this is the God that we had pined for – let us rejoice in His salvation. And what’s wrong with a triangle – the answer, proclaim the meforshim, is that on the circle each of the infinitely unique points are equidistant (and thus equal) from the center. Different approaches with equal validity – with one caveat – that everyone is looking at the center.

Good Shabbos, Asher Brander

1. chart courtesy of VBM of yeshivat har etzion


2. Ramban, Bamidbar 3:14
3. Cf Rashi, Shemos 5:4 for an expansion
4. Bereishis, 49:6
5. Bereishis, 29:34; Chizkuni, Bamidbar 26:62
6. Bamidbar, 3:39
7. ibid
8. Even before it was given to the masses, there were always individuals who had a Mesorah of Torah. See Netziv, 32:26. Rambam – Yesodei Hatorah
9. Whether Amram return to Yocheved because of Miriam’s compelling logic or because of prophecy seems to be a tension within Sotah 12a vs. 12b. See Maharsha
10. E.g. Kli Yakar asks on #1 from a midrash that implies Bnei Yisrael’s population preceded their servitude. On # 2: Who said Yaakov’s curse was meant to diminish population and why didn’t it apply to Shimon ? # 3: The ark only came later on. Etc.
11. Cf. Rashi Shemos, 1:12. Kli Yakar expresses this theme within Ramban in a beautiful way: נראה להוסיף בו ביאור כי לא הרבה אותם ה’ נגד הטבע רק כדי להפר עצת גוים אשר בקשו להמעיטם ע”י העינוי ורצה ה’ שיבצר מהם כל אשר יזמו לעשות. ואדרבה הרבה אותם חוץ מן הטבע כי הולידו ששה בכרס אחד ויכול להיות שזהו דעת הרמב”ן
12. This is Ohr HaChaim’s formulation; the gemara (sotah 12a) implies that futility of effort was their driving logic – lashav anu ameilim
13. Sotah 12a
14. Shemos 38:8. Cf Rashi
15. Bamidbar, 8:16
16. Devarim, 7:7

Rabbi Asher Brander is the Rabbi of the Westwood Kehilla, Founder/Dean of LINK (Los Angeles Intercommunity Kollel) and is a Rebbe at Yeshiva University High Schools of Los Angeles

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.