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Parshas Bamidbar

S’u es rosh kola das B’nei Yisroel (1:2)

            There is a mystical concept that the content and events described in the parsha read each Shabbos are on some deep level connected to the events of the coming week. It is interesting, then, to note that Parshas Bamidbar is always read on the Shabbos preceding the holiday of Shavuos, although it is difficult at first glance to find any striking connection between Parshas Bamidbar, which deals heavily with the counting of the various tribes and their encampments, and the holiday of Shavuos on which the Jewish people received the Torah. The Gemora in Megilla (31b) states that Ezra arranged the calendar so that the frightening curses and punishments described in Parshas Bechukosai would be read two weeks before Shavuos so as to symbolically leave the curses in the past, but this explanation still fails to offer a deeper lesson to be gleaned from the juxtaposition of Parshas Bamidbar to Shavuos.

            Rav Moshe Feinstein suggests that as Jews around the world excitedly gear up to personally reaccept the Torah and reaffirm their commitments to its study and the keeping of its commandments, the yetzer ha’ra (evil inclination) attempts to derail them by arguing that their Torah study is so limited both in quantity and in quality as to be insignificant and even, G-d forbid, a waste of time. The yetzer ha’ra shows a person how his more intellectually-gifted friends and neighbors are able to learn more hours, more pages of Gemora, and to retain their newfound knowledge much better than he could ever hope to do. As Jews get excited for the universal custom of staying up all night engrossed in the study of Torah, he may be tempted to opt for a good night’s sleep after considering that the most he could accomplish by staying up through the night could be learned on an even higher level by the Rosh Yeshiva in a mere 10 minutes.

            To counter this flawed, but prevalent, argument, the Torah precedes the holiday of Shavuos with the reading of Parshas Bamidbar. Although the parsha begins with Hashem’s command to Moshe to conduct a census of the Jewish people, it is written with a peculiar expression. Instead of instructing Moshe to “go count the people,” the words used literally translate as “pick up the heads of each of the Jews.” Why did Hashem use this awkward, and seemingly imprecise, expression when commanding Moshe about the census?

Just as a modern Jew could get discouraged in his service of Hashem when comparing it to others, certainly one in the desert, who lived in the shadows of Moshe and Aharon, could be susceptible to the same fallacy. He may feel that although he is “worth” 1 in Hashem’s eyes, but those around him are “worth” 100 or even 1 million, which will leave him distraught and despondent. Therefore, Hashem commanded Moshe regarding the census using the expression “pick up their heads,” because when every Jew realizes that he is counted in Hashem’s eyes as the same 1 as every other Jew, he will recognize how precious and valuable his personal efforts are in Hashem’s eyes, and this understanding will allow him to “pick up his head” and hold it high with a newfound self-confidence. Although others may seem light-years ahead of us in the quantity and quality of their mitzvos, the lesson of Parshas Bamibar is that everybody is judged equally in Hashem’s eyes, based on a benchmark of what he is personally capable of doing, and one who overcomes his own personal struggles to maximize his G-d-given potential should certainly enter Shavuos prepared to accept the Torah with his head held high.


Ish al diglo b’osos l’beis avosam yachanu B’nei Yisroel mi’neged saviv l’ohel moed yachanu (2:2)

            Rav Avrohom of Zunsheim, a Rishon and author of Tikkun Tefillin, points out a number of fascinating parallels between the Tefillin shel Rosh and the encampments of the Jews in the desert. The tefillin is sewn up on the bottom with 12 stitches, 3 on each of the 4 sides. This corresponds to the configuration of the 12 tribes, which also camped in groups of 3 tribes, all positioned around the central camp of the Divine Presence and camp of the Levites. In the center of the tefillin are the parshios, which represent the Luchos, and the cube in which they rest corresponds to the Aron in which the Luchos were kept. Finally, the kapores – the lid of the Aron – had two Keruvim on top of it, positioned with their wings spread above. This image of a cherub with its wings spread is similar to the Hebrew letter “shin,” and so the two letter “shin”s which are located on the outside of the box of the tefillin symbolize the Keruvim resting on top of the Aron and spreading their wings!


V’ha’chonim alav mateh Yissochor v’nasi liv’nei Yissochor Nesanel ben Tzuar … matzeh Zevulun v’nasi liv’nei Zevulun Eliav ben Cheilon … U’mateh Gad (2:5-7, 14)

            There was once a complicated and difficult Din Torah in the city of Vilna requiring Rabbinical arbitration. The parties requested that the great Vilna Gaon preside over the Beis Din which would hear and rule on the dispute, but to their surprise, he refused. When pressed for his rationale, he explained that one of the individuals chosen to sit on the Beis Din was a businessman who wasn’t sufficiently learned in order to be involved in the resolution of the case, and the Shulchan Oruch (Choshen Mishpat 3:4) forbids a judge from sitting on a Beis Din with another judge who is unfit for the position, such as one who isn’t a Torah scholar. In fact, the Sm”a writes there that the rulings of laymen are generally the opposite of those of Torah scholars!

            The Vilna Gaon continued his explanation by bringing a beautiful hint to this halacha. In listing the formations and configurations of the Jewish encampments in the desert, the Torah lists four groups of three tribes, each of which encamped in a different direction around the central Mishkan. In each list of three tribes, the verse which mentions the third tribe always begins with the letter “vov,” which serves to connect that tribe to the preceding tribes. There is one exception, however, in that the tribe of Zevulun, which represented the businessmen and merchants, is the third tribe to be listed in the encampment of Yehuda in the east, yet it doesn’t begin with a connecting letter “vov.” The Gaon explained that this is because the second tribe in the list is that of Yissochor, which symbolizes the Torah scholars, and the Torah intentionally omitted the connecting “vov” in order to hint to the aforementioned law, that when it comes to clarifying and ruling on Torah matters, there may be no relationship or connection between the competent Torah scholars and the insufficiently-learned businessmen!


Vayamas Nadav v’Avihu lifnei Hashem b’hakrivam aish zara lifnei Hashem b’midbar Sinai u’vanim lo hayu lahem vay’chahein Elozor v’Isomor al p’nei Aharon avihem (3:4)

            The Rav of a town in Europe once passed away, and because his son was too young to fill his position, the leaders of the community hired another Rav to take his place. Within a number of years, however, his son matured and reached a level at which he was capable of serving in his father’s stead. The new Rav expressed resistance and argued that although a Rav’s son is legally entitled to inherit his father’s position and fill the role if he is fitting, in this case the son had been too young at the time and therefore lost his right of succession.

            The dispute was brought for resolution to Rav Meir Shapiro. The Medrash explains that the Torah emphasizes the fact that Nadav and Avihu died without any children in order to teach that if they had indeed had children, their children would have precedence in taking their places. It was only because they died without children that the verse concludes that Elazar and Isomor were therefore eligible to serve in their father Aharon’s stead. Rav Shapiro noted that this Medrash is difficult to understand, as the Zohar HaKadosh states that Nadav and Avihu were under the age of 20 when they died. Even if they had left descendants, those children would clearly be under Bar Mitzvah age at the time of their deaths, which would invalidate them from inheriting the position and serving in the Mishkan at that time. If so, how could the Medrash infer that had Nadav and Avihu left behind progeny, they would have preceded their uncles (Elozor and Isomor) in filling a position for which they were ineligible? Rather, Rav Shapiro concluded, we may deduce from here that even in a case when the inheritors are too young at the time of death to fill the role which is rightfully theirs, they never relinquish their claims to the position, which they are entitled to fill upon their maturity, and the Rav’s son shall now inherit his father’s mantle!


Parsha Points to Ponder (and sources which discuss them):

1)     In relating the number of Jews in each tribe, the Torah tells us that the population of every tribe was a multiple of 100, with the exception of Gad, whose population was a multiple of 50 (1:25). Was it really possible that every single tribe had precisely such an even number of Jews, or did the Torah round the census to the nearest 50 or 100? (Derech Sicha, Taima D’Kra Hosafos, Shiras Dovid, Meshech Chochma)

2)     Hashem instructs the Levites to encamp around the Mishkan in order to safeguard it (1:53). The Gemora in Pesachim (67b) derives from 5:2 that any man who is impure due to marital relations must be sent out of two camps, namely the camp of the Divine Presence and the camp of the Levites. If so, how were the Levites ever permitted to have relations with their wives, as this would render them impure and forbidden to be present in their encampment? (Shu”t Tashbatz 3:137, Meshech Chochma, Shiras Dovid, Rav Yosef Engel)

3)     Parshas Bamidbar contains Hashem’s instructions regarding the placement of the encampment of the various tribes (2:2). The events of the parsha occurred approximately one year after the Exodus from Egypt (1:1). Why didn’t Hashem instruct them regarding the order of the encampments during their first year in the desert? (Emes L’Yaakov)

4)     Rashi quotes (3:1) the Gemora in Sanhedrin (19b), which states that whoever teaches Torah to others is considered as if he gave birth to them, in order to explain why the Torah refers to the sons of Aharon as Moshe’s progeny. As Moshe taught the entire Torah to every single Jew, in what way are Aharon’s children considered his offspring more than the entire Jewish people? (Kli Yakar, Mishmeres Ariel)

5)     Rashi explains (3:16) that Moshe felt it was inappropriate for him to enter the tents of every Levite in order to count their population (toward which babies were counted from the age of 1 month), so Hashem instructed him to stand in front of each tent, at which point a “Bas Kol” (Heavenly voice) announced the number of people inside. Why was it necessary to count the Levites in such a miraculous fashion when Moshe could have simply asked each father how many children are in his family? (Darash Moshe)

6)     The tribe of Levi, ostensibly containing the most holy Divine servants, numbered only 22,000 (3:30), substantially smaller than any of the other tribes. The Ramban writes that because they didn’t suffer from the enslavement in Egypt (Rashi Shemos 5:4), they therefore didn’t merit the blessing of each woman giving birth to six children at a time as did the other tribes. Rashi writes (3:39) that 300 of the 22,300 Levites were first-born. If 22,300 Levites were born to a mere 300 families, the average family size was an astonishing 74! How was this possible if the Levite women didn’t merit the blessing of multiple births?

7)     The Ohr HaChaim HaKadosh writes (3:45) that although the right to serve Hashem in the Beis HaMikdash was taken from the first-born and given to the Levites, in the Messianic days it will once again return to the first-born. What is the source in Chazal for this claim, and how can it be reconciled with the principle that the laws and rulings of the Torah will never become negated? (Taima D’Kra, Nesivos Rabboseinu, Taam V’Daas)

8)     The Rema rules (Yoreh Deah 305:10) that the mitzvah of Pidyon HaBen – redemption of the first-born male son – must be performed by the father and cannot be done through an agent. How can this be reconciled with the explicit verses in the Torah (3:47-51) which relate that the redemption of the first-born in the desert was done by giving money to Moshe, who then gave it to the Kohanim as their agent? (Malbim; Bi’ur HaGra, Hagahos Rav Akiva Eiger, and Pis’chei Teshuva there; Shu”t Chasam Sofer 257 and 293-4; Shiras Dovid)

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