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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


Take a census of the entire assembly of Bnei Yisrael. (1:2)

Parashas Bamidbar records the census of the Jewish nation as it entered the wilderness. Indeed, a major portion of the parshah details names and numbers of the members of the twelve tribes. Why are so many pesukim occupied with what appears to be endless statistics? Is there any real significance to this? The Shem MiShmuel cites the Zohar Hakadosh that asserts that the wilderness was harsh and inhospitable, a region which presented both a physical and spiritual challenge for the nascent Jewish nation. So, why did Hashem take them there? The Zohar explains that when, at the moment in which Klal Yisrael left Egypt, their census reached a complete total of 600,000 souls, the Holy Kingdom was strengthened. The evil kingdom - represented by the forces of tumah, spiritual impurity - under the leadership of the Angel Samael has its domain in the barrenness of the midbar, wilderness. It was here that the Jewish People would have to contend with the forces of evil in order to break them, releasing Samael's hold, removing him from rulership. The midbar was a challenge which Klal Yisrael had to overcome as part of their development as the am Hashem, nation of G-d. The desert was a place to conquer, both physically and spiritually. It would be the battleground when Klal Yisrael ventured into its vast domain, waving Hashem's banner. Their aim was to declare war on Samael, to overpower his legions and subjugate them to the powers of good.

The battle was going to be tough. In order to triumph, the Jewish People had to be appropriately armed. To win in war, one needs more than effective weaponry. He needs to assume a correct mindset geared to win, characterized by a boldness of heart, courage, stamina and self-confidence. From an emotional point of view, the soldier must believe both in what he is doing and in himself. Emotional strength parallels - and quite possibly carries greater significance than - physical prowess. This is especially true in a spiritual battle.

When Klal Yisrael readied itself for battle, the Kohen would speak to the people: "Hear, Yisrael, you are today drawing near to battle against your enemies. Do not let your hearts soften, and do not fear" (Devarim 20:3). In the Talmud Sotah 44b, Chazal intimate that fear is the cause of failure: "The first stage of failure (in battle) is fleeing." If this is true in physical battle, it is also applicable to a spiritual struggle. When Klal Yisrael's warriors entered into battle with the spiritual forces of evil, they needed to feel certain of their calling, so that they would not abandon their mission, despite the obstacles and hardships which they would confront. They would experience setbacks and encounter failures, but to prevail in the end demanded that they maintain a high degree of self-esteem and believe in the value of their mission. Battles may be lost, but the soldier's fight, ideals and values cannot be impugned, so that he can continue the "good" fight another day.

The battle revolves around self-confidence. One must believe in himself and in what he is undertaking. This is true in every area of human endeavor, and especially crucial in the quest for spiritual ascension over the faces of evil. The Shem MiShmuel asserts that it is fundamental to Jewish life that one feel confident that every act which he performs is of critical significance. Nothing is unimportant. Thus, a high sense of self-esteem was a pre-requisite for the Jewish nation as they approached the "battlefield" of the wilderness. In order to bolster their self-esteem, Hashem commanded Moshe Rabbeinu to take a census.

Why use numbers? It is an established principle of Jewish thought that anything which is counted becomes chashuv, significant. If something is valuable enough to be counted, it will not merge easily with other things. It carries its own relevance. Counting gives a subject a feeling of value, a sense of consequence. If I am significant enough to be counted, then my life, its goals and objectives are also inherently important. Approaching the wilderness as a nation filled with confidence, as a people whose self esteem was unimpaired, they were able to grapple with the challenges in order to overcome the spiritual obstacles that lay in their path. They were, thus, rendered impervious to the evil forces of the desert, whose aim was to frustrate their holy goals.

The Shem MiShmuel observes that the various countings of Klal Yisrael took place primarily prior to their entering into the fray of battle - both physical and spiritual. The first time occurred when Yaakov Avinu descended to Egypt with his family of seventy souls. As they were about to encounter the spiritually depraved, immoral environment that defined Egyptian culture, they were in dire need of the fortitude necessary to survive the waves of assimilation that lay ahead. After the chet ha'eigal, sin of the Golden Calf, Klal Yisrael returned to become "mortal" once again. When they had stood at the foot of Har Sinai, experiencing the Revelation, and accepted the Torah, their neshamos, souls, soared, their inherent level of kedushah, sanctity, was unparalleled. At this point, they were divested of the spiritual detritus that had been injected into the world as a result of the sin committed in Gan Eden. The chet ha'eigal reversed this, leaving them vulnerable to spiritual impairment and succumbing to mortality. Therefore, after the sin of the Golden Calf, as the survivors were about to return to mortal life, fraught with spiritual danger, they were once again counted.

As Klal Yisrael was about to enter the Holy Land, a census was taken prior to commencing the battles to reclaim Eretz Yisrael from the pagans. All of the census-taking was performed upon instructions from Hashem. The one time that Jews were counted, which was not as a prelude to war occurred during David Hamelech's reign. This was considered a serious infringement on their part and resulted in grave consequences.

Take a census of the entire assembly of Bnei Yisrael according to their families, according to their fathers' household, by number of the names. (1:2)

Klal Yisrael was counted three times during the span of one year: First, when they left Egypt; again, after Yom Kippur when Moshe Rabbeinu returned from Har Sinai with the wonderful news that they were forgiven for their participation in the chet ha'eigal, sin of the Golden Calf. At this time, they were counted through the means of the Machatzis Ha'Shekel, half-shekel coin. Last, they were again counted following the Chanukas Ha'Mishkan, Inauguration of the Mishkan. Interestingly, the census coincided all three times: 603,550 men over the age of twenty years old. That, however, is the extent of their equivalence.

In describing the Jews who were counted, the Torah refers to them as yotzei tzava, those who go out to the legion/soldiers, while in the previous counts, they had been called gevarim, men, or pekudim, counted ones. Furthermore, in the third count, they were counted l'mishpechosam, according to their families, and l'beis avosam, according to their father's household, b'mispar sheimos, by number of the names, which does not seem to have been the case in the previous censures. At the conclusion of the third count, the Torah once again, after detailing the individual encampments of each tribe in accordance with its designated position and degel, flag/banner, records the individual census of each tribe and recaps the sum total of all the tribes together. Why? Last, in the third census, Shevet Levi, the tribe of Levi, was counted separately for those thirty to fifty years of age, which had not been done in the previous counts. Why is the Torah allotting so much space to the third count? Clearly, it must have been different than the preceding census. In what way?

Horav Elchanan Sorotzkin, zl, addresses these questions; he explains that something occurred between the first two censuses and the third, something earth-shattering which created a spiritual upheaval in the essence of the Jewish psyche: the concretization of the Har Sinai experience, in the Revelation and the giving of the Torah; the building of the Mishkan, creating a place for the Shechinah to repose among the Jewish people. The experiences preceding and following the other censuses all led up to that auspicious moment when the Mishkan became a part of Jewish life. With the tribes camping around the Mishkan, a certain sense of palpable kedushah, sanctity, prevailed within Klal Yisrael. The Mishkan became the symbol of a continuous maamad Har Sinai, Revelation, which imbued the nation with a greater sense of Jewish pride and dignity. All of this led to a different "Jew", with a unique and especially close relationship with Hashem. This transformation engenders a different perspective on their census. The six-hundred thousand plus "men" or "countees," the "grouped together consensus," became individuals in their own right.

The Jews were now counted: as "family members", as "heads of households"; by "number of their names," each one having his own individual name which was counted. The Jewish people are compared to stars, each one maintaining individual status. In his commentary to the pasuk, "according to the number of names," Sforno writes: "For at that time every one of that generation was designated by his name, which was indicated and reflected stature and character, similar to, "and I know you by name" (Shemos 33:17). This was not so concerning the members of the generation which (actually) entered Eretz Yisrael. Thus, they were not counted by name. Only the heads of families and the sum total number of men were mentioned. This teaches us that the (original) intent was that those self same men should live to inherit the Land, without exception."

Due to the outstanding degree of eminence which the people achieved as a result of their close proximity to the Mishkan, the Torah spares no words in detailing this last census. It emphasizes the individuality of each Jew, the status as a member of his tribal family, as a Levi devoted to spiritual service, and as a member of G-d's legion.

The Sforno duly notes the disparity between the generation that left Egypt and built the Mishkan - in contrast to the one which actually witnessed the realization of their forty-year wandering, culminating with the entry of Klal Yisrael into the Holy Land. The first generation was "called by name," while the second generation possessed superior qualities, as a result of being born into certain "families" and "fathers' households." In other words, it was not "them," but rather, from whom they descended. Interestingly, it was the second - "lesser" - generation that entered Eretz Yisrael. One would think that it should have been just the opposite.

The Nesivos Shalom explains that ego and individualism can be a double-edged sword. Ego is important, even necessary, in order to battle the blandishments presented by the yetzer hora, evil-inclination. At the same time, however, the effects of ego can make it difficult for one to sublimate himself to the needs and pressures associated with conquering and settling the land. The second generation, although not as spiritually proficient as their predecessors, possessed a sense of simplicity and humility. The Holy Land is a place that requires subjugation, something that came more naturally to the second generation of Jews.

The Nesivos Shalom goes on to offer his own approach to explaining why the second generation, which was spiritually deficient in contrast to the yotzei Mitzrayim, the generation that left Egypt, still merited entering Eretz Yisrael, while their predecessors did not. Living in Egypt for hundreds of years had a deleterious spiritual effect. The tumah, spiritual impurity, and decadence that defined this morally bankrupt society clearly affected every person there. Finally, upon being liberated from the filth of Egypt their primary objective in serving Hashem was to divest themselves of, and purify themselves from, the centuries-long taint that enveloped them. They focused on sur meira, turning away from evil, abstaining and contending with the forces of iniquity that would impede their spiritual ascension. The second generation was born into a purer environment. Not having to tangle with the forces of impurity, they were able to focus on building, on creating good, on asei tov, actively performing good deeds. Thus, they were the ones charged with entering the land.

The Bais Avraham writes that these two forms of avodas Hashem, service to Hashem, demand variegated mindsets. One who is sur meira, resists evil, must at times transcend the forces that seek to pull him down. He requires dynamic self-confidence and strength of character. The yetzer hora calls attention to a person's weaknesses, his prior failings, and attempts to convince him that it is all for naught. He is not going to make it anyway. So, why bother? This is where ego kicks in, engendering within him the fortitude to ignore the yetzer hora and resist evil.

The next generation concentrated on submission. In order to perform good deeds, to be asei tov, one must be humble, subjugating himself to the needs of others, to serving, to giving, to listening, to muting his sense of self-importance, to downplaying his own ego. They were "members of "their fathers' households" - not necessarily seeking "names" in their own right. It was this generation, the generation of submission and asei tov, which entered Eretz Yisrael.

Every man should camp by his flag, with the signs of their father's house. (2:2)

Hashem instructed Moshe Rabbeinu to designate a specific place around the Mishkan where each tribe should encamp. The Midrash teaches us that Moshe was concerned lest the tribes disagree with their assigned places. Hashem told him not to worry, since the tribes knew their places. They would follow the same configuration as the one arranged by their ancestor Yaakov Avinu for his funeral, as he blessed them prior to his death. We wonder how Yaakov's prior designation would "encourage" his descendants to accept their positions. The tribe that would dispute Moshe's configuration could just as easily challenge Yaakov's positioning of the tribes. Furthermore, they could claim that Yaakov's decision was not valid regarding the encampments. How was their concern allayed?

Perhaps, if we analyze the primary reason that people dispute authority, it might shed light upon why the tribes accepted Yaakov's allocation. When someone renders a decision affecting another person, the first thing that enters that individual's mind is: What does he have to gain from his decision? How is he benefitting? These questions pressure the person to the point that he develops a dark opinion of any decision that anyone makes concerning him. If the decision is clearly the product of a fair and impartial sense of judgment, then an intelligent person will accept the decision outright. People quibble when they feel that someone is pulling the wool over their eyes. Otherwise, by nature, we are a trusting lot.

Yaakov's designation occurred prior to his death, as he instructed his sons concerning their formation around his coffin. He surely had nothing to gain from this allocation. He was not playing a role in his funeral. As such, his sons understood that his decision was based upon his unbiased judgment. Thus, they accepted it without question. Their descendants had no reason to dispute this arrangement, because it was fair and impartial. Moshe was only telling them to accept that which had been tried and true.

Those who encamp to the front, at the east, shall be the banner of the tribe of Yehudah… Those encamping near him are: The tribe of Yissachar… the tribe of Zevulun… (2:3,5,7)

Each tribe was represented by its flag, which carried a symbol based upon Yaakov Avinu's berachos to his children. Yehudah, Yissachar and Zevulun camped together. Yehudah's flag featured a lion, the king of beasts, because Yehudah represented monarchy. Yissachar presented the sun, moon and stars, because his descendants were proficient in the astronomical sciences, serving as consultants to the Sanhedrin for issues concerning calculating the appearance of the New Moon. Zevulun headlined a ship, since his descendants made their living at sea, being members of the merchant marine. Zevulun was placed next to Yissachar, as he supported Yissachar's learning through his seafaring profits. The question that presents itself is: If Zevulun's function was to support his brother's Torah study, could he have not been appropriated an easier way to earn a living? Sailors do not have an especially easy, or safe life. Their profession was the most harrowing of the tribes. Is this how they are rewarded for sharing with their brother?

Horav David Feinstein, Shlita, explains that specifically as a result of the fact that their profession is fraught with danger, sailors are unusually close with Hashem, maintaining a higher level of piety and faith in the Almighty. He quotes the Talmud Kiddushin 82a that refers to sailors as "chassidim," pious ones, as a reflection of their enormous trust in Hashem. Hashem wanted Zevulun to support Yissachar. The individual most likely to be a generous baal tzedakah, contributor to charitable organizations, to those in need, to support Torah study and dissemination, is one who sees Hashem's hand guiding his livelihood.

The ramifications of this statement are, indeed, powerful. A baal tzedakah is a maamin, one who trusts in Hashem. He does so because he opens up his eyes and perceives Hashem's "participation" in his affairs. He understands that whatever success he has achieved is a gift from Hashem - and has no other source! The flip side is something I would rather not address.

Do not allow the tribe of the Kehasi families to be cut off from among the Leviim. (4:18)

The Mesillas Yesharim 20 employs the concluding pesukim of the parsha as basis for the concept of mishkal ha'chassidus, the balance of piety. How often do we get carried away in the pursuit of a mitzvah, only to discover that it really was not a mitzvah? We must carefully weigh our actions to make certain that what we think is a mitzvah, really is a mitzvah. This is part of the repertoire of tricks of the yetzer hora, evil inclination. With guile, it is able to convince us that aveiros, sins, are really mitzvos and vice versa. What seems to be appropriate action might, quite possibly, be the converse.

The Ramchal is emphatic about the importance of striking a balance when it involves frumkeit, piety/observance. He views this as a "precarious area, fraught with great danger, because the yetzer hora can reject many good things as bad and seduce one to carry out an evil deed by making it appear as a mitzvah."

Someone who lives by the letter of the law, who takes a meticulous approach to following the precepts as outlined by the Shulchan Aruch, has his observance outlined for himself. What is permissible, he does, and what is forbidden, he refrains from doing. It is as simple as that. He knows that one may do certain activities on Shabbos and may not do other activities on Shabbos - and the list goes on.

The problem arises when one strives to go beyond the letter of the law, when he strives to practice chassidus, piety. No cut and dried guidelines exist for piety. In their absence, the yetzer hora has a field day. It can convince the aspiring chasid that certain activities are desirable - when, in fact, they are not and vice versa. No authority determines whether the practice is appropriate or not. Often, it depends on the identity of the individual who is undertaking it on his religious status quo. Is he "there" - or does he simply think that he is?

Consider the mitzvah of tzedakah. Some individuals convince themselves that they have other priorities concerning where to spend their hard-earned money. Others feel that the only way they can fulfill the mitzvah of tzedakah is by giving it all away. They have an almost obsessive-compulsive attitude to tzedakah. Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski recalls a member of his father's shul in Milwaukee who took it upon himself to give tzedakah beyond the Torah's imposed limit of one-fifth of a person's earnings. This individual was far from wealthy and went into debt to cover his self-imposed tzedakah obligations. He was highly respected for his self-sacrifice, but he suffered as a result of his kind-heartedness. Once there was an appeal for an especially worthy cause in the shul, and this man came forward with a check for one hundred dollars, which was a sizable sum in those days. The Milwaukee Rebbe, zl, refused to accept the check. The Rebbe later explained to his son, "Shlomo Hamelech says in Kohelles (7:16), Al tehi tzaddik harbeih, 'Do not be a tzaddik to excess.' This is what this man is doing. It is not normal. It is not right." Rabbi Twerski remarks that, many years later, he realized how right his father was. The tzaddik became wealthy as a result of a shrewd real estate investment. How disappointed everybody was when he suddenly became a miser. It was practically impossible to extract one dollar from him for tzedakah! He had it all wrong. When he did not have - he gave. Once he had - he clenched his fist tight and refused to help. Will the real chasid step forward?

The Chafetz Chaim would visit the bais medrash in his yeshivah late at night and send the students to sleep. He felt that the "urge" to continue learning into the wee hours of the morning was quite likely a response to the yetzer hora's crafty influence. By staying up late at night, they would be exhausted the next day. Sure, some students had the stamina to burn both ends of the candle, but this was not the norm. There might be those who question this, but they should ask themselves whether it is not the yetzer hora who is asking the question.

Horav Avraham Pam, zl, cited by Rabbi Shalom Smith in "A Vort from Rav Pam," applies the significance of mishkal ha'chassidus to yahrtzeits and, if I may add, Kaddish and "grabbing" the amud during the year of mourning for a parent. Kaddish and davening for the amud, leading the services, bring about a tremendous merit for the neshamah, soul, of the departed, but at whose expense? While it is traditional that a son recites Kaddish and davens for the amud during the year of mourning for a parent, in certain instances, a person who possesses a modicum of seichel, common sense, or a drop of human decency, will defer his right and accede to another.

Note the following vignette: It is related that on the day that Horav Yisrael Salanter, zl, had yahrtzeit for his father, he happened to be in a shul where there was another Jew who also had yahrtzeit for his father. The gabbai, sexton, in charge of allocating the privilege of leading the services authorized Rav Yisrael the honor. Rav Yisrael declined, suggesting that the gabbai grant the honor to the other Jew. The Gabbai was puzzled, wondering why Rav Yisrael would relinquish such an honor on his father's yahrtzeit. The founder of the Mussar, ethical/character development movement, replied, "I know that the other Jew will have chalishus hadaas, great heartache, if he would not be able to daven for the Amud on his father's yahrtzeit. I think that foregoing my own obligation and, instead, allowing another Jew to be spared the emotional pain will ultimately bring greater merit to my father's soul than my "davening for the amud."

He knew how to balance chassidus.

Va'ani Tefillah

Vayimalai kevodo es kol ha'aretz amen v'amen.
May all the earth be filled with His glory, amen and amen.

With these words, David Hamelech concludes the second book of Tehillim. He writes the last pasuk, Kalu tefillos David ben Yishai, "The prayers of David ben Yisahi are ended." Horav S.R. Hirsch, zl, explains this sort of milestone conclusion. When the yimalei kevodo es kol haaretz becomes a reality, then kalu tefillos David ben Yishai. Only after the world has recognized Hashem - then - and only then - will the prayers of David Hamelech be concluded. Until that time, the Psalmist will continue davening for humanity.

We end the perek with Amen v'Amen. Horav Shimon Schwab, zl, explains that the word amen has two meanings. In the first meaning, the respondent is affirming his belief in the words that he hears. He identifies himself with the statement/prayer/blessing that he hears and accepts them as truth. It also has another meaning: as a prayer, whereby the respondent offers his hope that the blessing achieves fulfillment. Thus, when one receives a brachah, blessing, from another, he answers amen, as a prayer for the blessing to be fulfilled.

Likewise, here we say amen as a way of expressing our belief that eventually the entire world will recognize Hashem as G-d. We then add the second amen as a prayer that this day come soon - speedily - and in our time.

R' Alter Chaim Dovid ben R' Menachem Shmuel z"l
niftar 28 Iyar 5767
Menachem Shmuel and Roiza Devora Salamon
In memory of Mr. David Salamon z"l

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