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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


Take a census of the entire assembly of Bnei Yisrael according to their families, according to their father's house. (1:20)

Rashi explains that as a result of Klal Yisrael's dearness to Hashem, He counts them all of the time. The Mishkan, the site of the Revelation of the Divine Presence, was erected on Rosh Chodesh Nissan. On the following month, Rosh Chodesh Iyar, Hashem counted them. The Commentators struggle with the thirty-day lapse between the time the Mishkan was erected and the time Hashem counted Klal Yisrael. One would think that because of Hashem's great love for Klal Yisrael, He would count them on the most auspicious day, the day the Mishkan was erected. A number of reasons are given for this delay. Sifsei Chachamim explain that in order to establish residence, one must reside in a home for a minimum of thirty days.Thus, Hashem reposed in the Mishkan for thirty days before counting Klal Yisrael.

Horav Shmuel Vosner, Shlita, offers a practical reason for waiting until Chodesh Iyar before counting the Jewish people. By doing so, Hashem demonstrates their exalted position. During the month of Nissan, everyone is on a high spiritual plateau due to their involvement in the Festival of Pesach. Hashem waited until the completion of this month to show that the Jewish people possessed their own personal status.

Nachlas Tzvi cites the Slonimer Rebbe, zl, who explains Klal Yisrael's distinctiveness, even when they do not reflect the appropriate Jewish image or act in a manner that is spiritually correct, with the following analogy. It happened once that someone stole a chicken from a private yard. The owner searched everywhere, to no avail; the chicken was nowhere to be found. He decided that he would wait at the slaughterhouse, so that when the thief came to have the chicken slaughtered, he would confront him and retrieve his chicken. He waited for awhile until someone approached with a chicken that had some resemblance to his chicken. Its appearance had been severely altered: its feathers had been plucked, and its hair had been cut. The thief apparently wanted to make sure that the owner could not identify his chicken. Immediately, the owner began to scream accusingly, "Thief! It is my chicken. You are a thief. Return my chicken!" The thief was nobody's fool and he quickly retorted, "This is not your chicken. It is mine. How could you claim this chicken? Is this the way your chicken looked?" "It is my chicken," exclaimed the owner. "You did some cutting and some plucking, but it is still mine. Put it down on the floor, and we will see where it will run - to me or to you. "

The yetzer hora, evil inclination, makes a similar accusation concerning Klal Yisrael. He turns to the Malach, Angel, Michael, who as our advocate, seeks to defend us from the criticism that is regrettably very condemning. "How can you identify these people?" asks the yetzer hora. "Do they look like Jews? Do they dress like Jews? Do they act like Jews? They look no different than many of the gentiles they cavort with regularly. How can you possibly claim them as yours?"

The Malach is not fazed. He responds, "Yes, you are right. Without Tzitzis they do not look like Jews. Without Torah and mitzvos, they do not act like Jews. You have presented them devoid of their spiritual adornment. Let us put them to a test. Leave them alone for a moment. Halt your blandishments and evil influence, and we will see to whom they will turn!"

We are a holy People. While some of us have become alienated from the way of life for which our ancestors have lived and died, it is only superficial and temporary. Our essence remains holy and true to its source: Hashem.

The Bnei Yisrael shall camp each man by his banner according to the insignias of their fathers' household. (2:2)

The tribes camped around the Mishkan in a manner designated by Hashem. They were organized into formations of three tribes each. Their place around the Mishkan corresponded to the places which Yaakov Avinu designated to his sons when he instructed them on how to escort his bier to its final resting place. The Moinistritcher Rebbe notes that Parashas Bamidbar, which includes the chapter detailing the order of the degalim, banners, is always read on the Shabbos immediately prior to Shavuos. He posits that this is appropriate, especially given the fact that one of the forty-eight qualities by which Torah is acquired is hamakir es mekomo, being a person who recognizes his own place. In the order of the banners, each tribe took its designated place in accordance with Hashem's dictate. Indeed, as the Sefas Emes comments, there might have been some individuals who took offense by this predesignation. Undoubtedly, there were some among the tribes who felt that they were superior in wisdom and in their Torah knowledge to some of the Leviim. They might have contended - and even demanded - a closer spot to the Mishkan than those Leviim who were inferior to them. The Torah however, tells us that this did not occur. They assumed the position given to them by Hashem. The only democracy in those days was determined by Hashem.

What is the meaning of knowing one's place, and why is this considered a significant quality for the student of Torah? In the Mishnah in Pirkei Avos 6:6 the Tanna lists forty-eight qualities, or steps which lead to an individual's acquisition of Torah. These are forty-eight endeavors, matters that require work, application and perseverance with one's whole being. One who masters these forty-eight steps to Torah has achieved the zenith - he has acquired Torah. It is not easy. It is a long, perhaps difficult, road that can only be mastered with determination and commitment to achieving its goal.

The Commentators note a difference in syntax in the Mishnah. Up until now, for the first twenty-four steps, the Tanna lists what seems to be character traits that the Torah student must acquire if he is to succeed in his quest. In the Hebrew, each quality has the letter "bais" as a prefix, meaning "by" or "with," - e.g. - with reverence, by humility, by cheerfulness, etc. When the Tanna lists the remaining qualities, each one begins with the letter "hay". Thus, hamakir es mekomo, one who recognizes his place, implies that the following qualities are not qualities to be gained, but are traits already in one's possession. The resulting impression is that there are actually only twenty-four qualities to be gained and developed through deliberate, conscious effort. Until this point, the road to Torah mastery has been uphill. The rest of the journey will be downhill. Having acquired the previous twenty-four traits, the emerging Torah scholar, whose character has thus far been refined by the Torah, will become one who knows his place. Intuitively, he will realize his proper role in relationship with those around him, his privileges as Torah scholar and consequent responsibilities. Among those greater than he, he will keep silent. When he is the one who is the greater scholar, he will step forward and speak his mind, taking the lead.

Rabbi Shmuel m'Ozedah explains that it is a rare individual who can acquire more good traits than those heretofore mentioned. To know one's place means to know oneself. How difficult it is to look at ourselves in the mirror and see what is really there, not merely what we want to see. Few people are capable of evaluating the true significance and value of their achievements, uninfluenced by those who flatter them and unmoved by public opinion. It is a natural tendency to overestimate one's achievements. Indeed, self-criticism is one of the more difficult skills to acquire. On the other hand, one should not be overly humble, allowing anyone and everyone to step over him.

Right from the onset of our People's nationhood it was essential that everyone literally be put in his place, realizing that one's value is not determined by his place on the mizrach vont, eastern wall, which is normally reserved for nobility. One's value is determined by his ability to carry his individual role in the scheme of life. Knowing our place in the scheme of things helps us to concentrate better on the Torah and its precepts, rather than on our foolish egos.

Count the sons of Levi…every male from one month of age and up…(3:15)

Rashi explains that the little infants of Bnei Levi were counted from the tender age of one month and up. Already at this young age, they were called by the title of honor and distinction that they would achieve as adults. Why grant such an esteemed title to a young child? Are we so sure they will live up to the title? Apparently, Shevet Levi had this "track record." Those thirty day old infants were sure to grow up to become Shomrei Mishmeres HaKodesh, Guardians of the Holy Watch.

How can we be so certain of their outcome? We see regrettably, how all too often children from the finest and most observant homes, whose parents are dedicated and devoted to everything Jewish, seem to drift away. What traits do members of the tribe of Levi manifest that makes them different, that ensures that their children will grow up b'derech Yisrael sabbah, the path of our ancestors?

Horav Shimon Schawab, zl, explains that the Leviim of old knew the secret of successful Torah chinuch, education. They knew and understood the primary ingredient that would guarantee that there would not be a break between father and son, that each ensuing generation would commit to the legacy transmitted to them by their forebears. In the end of Sefer Devarim, when Moshe blessed Shevet Levi, he detailed their praise saying, "He who could say regarding his father and mother he did not see them and, as to his children, he did not know them, for they [the tribe of Levi] kept Your word, and Your Covenant did they guard" (Devarim 33:9). Rashi explains that this refers to the sin of the Golden-Calf, when Klal Yisrael faltered and rebelled against Hashem. Moshe Rabbeinu exclaimed, "Mi l'Hashem elai," "Who is for Hashem, should come to Me!" Shevet Levi were those who took the stand for Hashem. They were commanded to slay those who had worshipped the Golden-Calf - regardless of their filial relationship to them. The Leviim's love for, and commitment to, the Almighty transcended family relationships. Their maternal grandfather, their daughter's son, their brother from the same mother who was not a Levi - all these relatives had no distinction in their eyes. Their love for Hashem took priority. The love for a grandchild, for a brother, for a grandfather, deferred to their love for Hashem.

A child growing up in such a home was conveyed a profound message: "I love you more than anyone in the world except - Hashem." When a child grows up knowing that his father loves him dearly, yet, if the situation should arise in which he must choose between his love for Hashem and his love for his son, he will choose Hashem, the son will understand and respect both his father and Hashem. The son will realize that Hashem is paramount in his father's eyes, that He is above all else. This will inspire the son to respect and ultimately serve Hashem in the correct and proper manner. This is the key to successful Jewish parenting. Parents must transmit a clear message to their child - not the mixed messages so many of your youth receive today. When children see their parents' blatant hypocrisy, when they see them acting one way in public and another way at home, it does very little to encourage their esteem for the Almighty.

Horav Schwab further illustrates this point with the following powerful incident. He remembers himself as a child of eight years old, the eldest of five brothers, sitting at the Pesach Seder table. When they came to the section of the Hagaddah which relates the questions of the four sons, his father asked each one of his brothers, "Which one of the four sons do you want to become?" Of course, each one responded that he hoped to be the ben chacham, wise son.

Suddenly, his father became very serious and said in a very loud voice, "If one of my children ever became a rasha, evil, even disregarding one mitzvah, I would tell him, li v'lo lo, for me and not for him. You no longer will have a place at my Seder table, because I love Hashem more than I love you." He immediately returned to the recitation of the Haggadah in his normal gentle manner. Ostensibly, this episode left an indelible imprint on each of the sons. They had no doubt as to Hashem's position of priority in their father's mind.

This is, undoubtedly, a powerful story, one which will invoke the wrath and, at least, consternation of the liberal-minded contemporary parent. How could a father talk like that to his children? How does a parent make such an implacable statement to a young child? How could a parent be so unyielding, so uncompromising? This is the American society within us that is talking. This is the questioning of a society dominated by hypocrisy, where the artificial is venerated and the charlatan lauded. This question emanates from the parent who refuses to take responsibility, who would rather lay blame than seek a cure; who expects parenting to be instant, who dresses up his children for the public view, disregarding their inner problems and hurt.

In another lecture, Horav Schwab shares with us a glimpse of what parents of old, people who truly loved Hashem - more than their own flesh and blood - were like, and how they reared children in such a manner as to guarantee spiritual success. The chinuch of a child began in the crib. As soon as a child was able to understand, he was told about the Creator Who created each of us; Who knows us; Who watches over us; and Who gave us mitzvos to observe. As soon as the child was able to talk, the parents taught him the fundamentals of our faith, of emunah in Hashem, and the paramouncy of the Torah. The first stories a child heard were the life stories of the Avos, Patriarchs, the exodus from Egypt and the Giving of the Torah. The parents sang to their children at night, songs of faith, of Torah and of love for Hashem. In short, they personally related to their children the primacy of Hashem and His Torah to the Jewish People. A child recognizes and senses sincerity. Parents who are earnest in their relationship with their children, who are frank and honest, who give, but expect a return, who demand out of genuine love and concern, whose own actions are consistent with what they demand of their children, can hope to see the fruits of their labor.

Vignettes on the Parsha

And with you shall be one man from each tribe; a man who is a leader of his father's household. (1:4)

Horav Mordechai HaKohen, zl, comments that the man who is chosen to assume the leadership of his tribe, to be a leader of his community, should be one who is a man in his own right. He must possess the necessary qualities, attributes and virtues inherent in a leader. He should be the rosh l'bais avosav, leader of his father's household, the one with whom the yichus, family lineage, begins, not ends.


As they encamp so shall they journey. (2:17)

Horav Yehoshua, zl, m'Kutna, notes that there are people who when they are on the road - travelling either for business or pleasure - seem to be lax in their mitzvah observance. Yet, when they are at home, bound by a stable schedule, they have an impeccable record of mitzvah observance. We are hereby admonished that one should maintain the same level of mitzvah observance when he journeys as when he is encamped.


Count the Bnei Levi…every male from one month of age. (3:15)

Horav Yosef Shaul Nottenson, zl, observes that while Bnei Yisrael were counted from the age of twenty years old, Bnei Levi were counted practically from birth. He explains that Bnei Yisrael joined the Jewish legion on their own accord, based upon their merit and ability. Consequently, they were inducted at an age that reflected maturity and responsibility. Bnei Levi, however, were ordained into service as a result of their pedigree. Hence, they were counted from birth. They could not actually serve until they were thirty years old - ten years longer than their "Yisrael" cousins. This teaches us that one whose lineage is greater has to develop himself accordingly.


All the countings of the Leviim…were twenty-two thousand. (3:39)

The Bais HaLevi explains that the tribe that was chosen to serve Hashem in the Sanctuary, whose life was devoted to spiritual endeavor, was the smallest in size. He posits that since they did not have any portion in Eretz Yisrael and were consequently supported by the rest of Klal Yisrael, Hashem did not want to impose too much on their brethren. We derive from here that Hashem makes sure that the charity we are to give is within our means.

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