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PARSHAS BAMIDBARITake 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)
What is the significance of the counting of the people by their names? Ramban explains this practically. It was a great honor to be presented before Moshe Rabbeinu and Aharon HaKohen and state one's name as a form of introduction. In his commentary to Sefer Shemos 1:1, Sforno explains the delineation of the individual names of each of the sons of Yaakov Avinu, while the names of the rest of the seventy members of the family which descended to Egypt are not detailed. Those who are mentioned were worthy to be named, for each one was worthy of his name, which reflects the stature and character of the individual. These men, the Shivtei Kah, Tribes of Hashem, were a beacon of light throughout their lifetime, assuring that their generation did not become degraded. After their demise, however, even those among their children who were righteous were not equally as important and worthy in the eyes of G-d and man.
Sforno underscores the significance of a man's name, as the indicator of his stature, an index to his very essence and character. This is reflected in the fact that the Torah considers him worthy of honorable mention in the Torah. Only certain names were carried by Aharon or recorded on his vestments. Those who were elevated above their brethren were considered worthy to have their names recorded for posterity. At this point in history, a person's name was Divinely inspired to indicate his personal virtues. Thirty-nine years later, when the nation crossed the Jordan River on their way into the Promised Land, their names were not recorded. The situation had changed. The Divine component in each name was no longer significant.
Perhaps we can take this idea a bit further. When Yaakov descended to Egypt with his family of seventy souls, the Torah listed their names. Now, as Sefer Shemos begins, these seventy souls are no longer the same distinguished family that had come to the land. The Patriarchal family of yesterday has been transformed into the Jewish slaves of today. If one were to search for the descendants of this noble family, he would be hard put to locate them amidst the hierarchy of Egyptian nobility. Today they were menial slaves, subject to cruel persecution and brutal affliction. Only one thing had not changed: their names. They still considered themselves the Shivtei Kah. Perhaps in the eyes of the Egyptian masses they might have been viewed as downtrodden slaves. In their eyes, they retained the "names" of nobility. A person is not made into a slave. He does it to himself. A master can refer to his worker as his slave, but, if in the mind of the worker, he is not a slave - then he is not a slave.
A prisoner becomes a prisoner when his mind becomes incarcerated. They can lock up one's body, but his mind can soar in the heavens. What has maintained our people throughout thousands of years of degradation, suffering and persecution has been our ability to maintain our names. We are Yehudim, a term which represents our aspirations. We are Bnei Yisrael, a name which denotes strength. We are Bnei Avraham, Yitzchak, Yaakov, names which conjure up images of spiritual commitment to the point of self-sacrifice. The world out there might call us by other names. The only name which really matters is the name by which we call ourselves.
Horav Aryeh Levin, zl, was a Torah scholar, teacher and tzaddik, a wholly righteous person. Yet, he distinguished himself in his lifetime as "the father of the prisoners," as well as the primary address for the downtrodden and the needy. He did not have to do this. He could have easily devoted his life to teaching Torah and earning himself a reputation as a distinguished Torah scholar. He chose this "name" for himself, because he was a man filled with exceptional humility and extraordinary love for all Jews. His raison d'etre was to alleviate the pain and suffering of a fellow Jew. He had the uncanny ability to relate to the entire spectrum of the social and religious gamut of the Jewish people, regardless of religious orientation. A Jew felt comfortable with Rav Aryeh. He knew how to penetrate the inner chambers of their hearts, and he was able to reach beneath the many levels of dross which covered their souls. He took an interest in their lives and, by doing this, gave them the courage to overcome their challenges.
A man chooses his own name. The goals and objectives he sets for himself in life determine how he will be identified. Will it be Mr., Rabbi, Rav, Horav, HaGaon, Hatzaddik? All of these titles depend on the course that he chooses for himself. These are the names by which he perceives himself. They are important, but not nearly as significant as the name/title by which people perceive him.
In a Tzaddik in our Time, the biography of Rav Aryeh Levin, the author makes what I feel is a profound and telling statement. He writes: "This was 'Reb Aryeh.' No other titles were necessary. In Yerushalayim, when you mentioned 'Reb Aryeh,' everyone knew you meant the man of kindly piety, Rav Aryeh Levin." I feel this is the greatest accolade one can earn: to be recognized by his own name.
Let us look back in history at our greatest gedolim, Torah giants. It was not necessary to preface their names with a long list of honorary titles. When the name Rav Aharon was mentioned, one immediately knew this was the Rosh Yeshivah par excellence; Rav Moshe was the posek hador, the generation's halachic decisor; Rav Yaakov was the chacham, wise man, of the generation; and the list goes on. Great people are acknowledged by their accomplishments, which, in turn, becomes the essence of their names. How fortunate is one to be known simply by his name.
As in all good things, there is always a flipside. A name symbolizes an aspiration - the parent's hope that his child will vaks ois, grow up, into something special. For some people, this can be a heavy yoke, a weight around their neck, whose demands are too hard to meet. I say this as a result of a poignant episode I recently read. It was part of an exceptionally moving, beautifully crafted tribute which was written by Horav Aharon Lopiansky, Shlita, to his father. Amongst the many vignettes and insights into his father's exceptional character, the author relates an incident which took place when he was a young boy, and his father's reaction to the incident.
Rav Lopiansky's father was a talmid, student, of the famous Slabodka Yeshivah, a yeshivah which aside from focusing on academic excellence,
underscored gadlus ha'adam, the greatness of man. His father was more than a student. He reflected Slabodka in his every demeanor. Slabodka coursed through his veins, as we shall see from the following episode.
They were a lively group of ten year old boys, who attended shul with their fathers. Davening was very long, so the children searched for "other" things to do. One of their favorite pastimes was chasing a wretched, homeless man who used the shul's furnace room as his "apartment." Like many others like him, his clothing smelled, he was slightly unhinged and he survived on the handouts that kind people gave him. The children would delight in rousing his ire and running away as he hurled epitaphs after them.
One day, Rav Lopiansky's father noticed this, and he called his son over. No angry yelling, no loud rebuke - just soft and gentle words. "You see that man?" his father asked. "He was born a cute little baby whose mother stroked him lovingly. She cooed to him and delighted when he cooed back and smiled at her. His father secretly hoped that he would achieve a position and stature in life which he himself, regrettably did not. He himself began dreaming and fantasizing about what he would be one day. He had brothers and sisters who played and fought with him as all siblings do.
"And now look at what has become of him. Is it not a tragedy? Should not one be moved to tears at what happened to him? And you are compounding the tragedy by taking a tzelem Elokim, a person who was created in Hashem's Image, and making 'dirt' out of him." With these words his father softly concluded his rebuke.
I do not know how anyone can read this account and not be moved by this new perspective on perceiving people. Parents give a name filled with aspirations. It does not always work out. We have met all the "glitches" in the system. Every community is graced with them. Perhaps now, for a change, we will view them in a different light.
And they established their genealogy according to their families, according to the household of their fathers. (1:18)
The count was carried out according to tribe. Thus, it was required for everyone to establish his tribal lineage, either by written documentation or by the testimony of witnesses. Lineage was important in order to determine exactly where each individual belonged. Pedigree, however, should not become the barometer for judging people, for promoting success, for determining an individual's potential or position. Success is earned; it is an achievement for which one toils, for which one must be personally worthy. "Surprisingly," there are people who do not have yichus, exceptional pedigree. They are simple, regular, common people, who do what is required of them and serve Hashem with temimus, wholesomeness, perfection. They do not warrant articles in the paper; when their children become engaged, they do not have pages of advertisements congratulating the heralded event. They live and die, and no one reports about them. They are as valuable to Hashem Yisborach, however, as the most "decorated" Jews. Mi k'amacha Yisrael? "Who is like Your nation, Yisrael?" These are the amcha, the common Jew, who is so much more significant than the false accolades received by the "others."
I write this on Parashas Bamidbar, because I just read a beautifully crafted vignette by Rabbi Hillel Goldberg, who writes a poignant appreciation of Count Valentin Potocki, or - as we know him - the Ger Tzedek, righteous convert, of Vilna, Avraham ben Avraham. I was, of course, moved by his masterful rendering and beautifully worded tribute to this enormously, spiritually inspiring human being. There is something that he adds which inspired me to include it in Peninim for Parashas Bamidbar, the Shabbos which usually precedes Shavuous.
Rav Avraham ben Avraham, zl, was burned at the stake, in a brutally horrific death, on the second day of Shavuous. It was 1749. His death took place on the day that we recite Yizkor, the memorial prayer for our loved ones who are no longer with us. Consequently, on every Shavuous, a separate Yizkor was recited in the main shul in Vilna for this kadosh, holy neshamah.
You see, Rav Avraham ben Avraham was a ger who had not married. Thus, he had no parents, no wife, no children. He was all alone in the world - like so many people that we know and tend to ignore. There was no one to recite Yizkor for him, so the residents of Vilna did - until the Nazis put an end to Yizkor and Vilna in 1941.
One would assume that like so many other sacred traditions that have fallen into oblivion, remembering Rav Avraham ben Avraham would follow suit. Rabbi Goldberg informs his readers that, in Congregation Ahavas Yisrael in Passaic, NJ, Rabbi Ron Eisenman reinstated the tradition. Now that the memory of the righteous convert has been taken care of, we should address the many other "faceless" and "nameless" people all around us, whom we forget about, simply because they have no pedigree to impose upon our consciences.
Bnei Yisrael shall encamp, every man at his camp and every man at his banner. (1:52)
The Torah goes into a lengthy discourse concerning the significance and specific order of the degalim, flags/banners, under which each tribe encamped. The people are admonished concerning their adherence towards honoring the protocols and parameters of the degalim. Each tribe was to remain within the boundary of his area of encampment as signified by his banner. Indeed, we find earlier, in Parashas Emor (Vayikra 24:10), that the blasphemer's original complaint was based upon the fact that he was not permitted to pitch his tent within the area designated for the Tribe of Dan. Likewise, we find specific protocols within the Bais Hamikdash, whereby a Levi, whose designated function was to sing, was not permitted to trade jobs and take care of opening and closing the doors. Is it so terrible? After all, are they not both members of Shevet Levi, each with the same inherent kedushah, sanctity? Is it so bad if one Levi helps the other one to perform his function? Is it the end of the world if the Levi who sings helps his cousin close the doors?
Horav Yeruchem Levovitz, zl, explains that, when the Torah demands a specific seder, order, it must be adhered to, because seder is the foundation of discipline. Without organization and order, peace cannot reign. Horav Aharon Kotler, zl, would note that order is the basis of shalom, peace, because true peace means that everyone is in his place, performing his designated function, thus not encroaching upon his fellow - an action which creates havoc.
Order applies to all of man's actions - not only in one's involvement with others, but even in one's personal life. He must not permit his tasks to impinge upon each other. When one actively overlaps onto another activity - neither one is done well. All of one's belongings must have their proper place. When one's seder is jumbled, his thought process will ultimately follow. One whose thoughts are disorganized does not function well as a ben Torah. Sloppy and careless action reflects a lack of constancy of thought and unremitting attention. Ultimately, they all mesh together: calm, organized, orderly, disciplined - a well-oiled, perfectly working, harmoni
zed person. To break a seder is to impede growth and development and succeed in producing a mediocre, chaotic and even disturbed product. Rav Yeruchem reflects on his years in Kelm, studying under the individual who exemplified seder, the Alter, zl, Horav Simcha Zissel Broide. Every chair was required to be in its place. To leave a chair lying around was a grave infraction, because it reflected a deeper and often serious pathology. The Mashgiach writes that he inherited a garment that appeared to be brand new from his revered Rebbe. It was, in fact, thirty years old. The creases were impeccable, the cloth clean and not worn out.
Rav Simcha Zissel never looked sideways because it was unnecessary. Indeed, in Kelm, if a person looked sideways, it was shameful. Every movement was controlled; no movement was wasted. If the Alter found a compelling reason for turning his head, he would turn his entire body - never just his eyes. We are used to adjusting our hat on our heads constantly. The Alter put on his hat, and it stayed in place all day.
Rav Simcha Zissel compared seder to a chain to which a diamond was attached. Clearly, the chain's value is insignificant in relation to the diamond. If, however, the chain breaks, the diamond is lost. Seder guards over every good middah, character trait, over every good action. It preserves and enhances it. One begins his daily seder at the designated time and concludes it the same way. When seder is completed, the appointed hour for seder's end has struck; seder is over - even if one is in the midst of a sentence. The Alter related that Horav Chaim Volozhiner, zl, was as demanding about the end of the seder as he was concerning its commencement. If seder ended between the words amar - and Rava (referring to the Amora Rava's statement: Amar Rava - Rava says), one should stop and continue with the next word (Rava) when the next seder starts. No excuse would suffice for missing a seder. Unlike our sedarim, the Alter's seder was eight hours long - without any stop! He was not a well person; yet, he permitted himself only three hours of sleep at night and one-half hour during the day.
Nature runs on a disciplined order. If anything is out of sync, it can cause turmoil and destruction. The sun's distance from earth may not change; it would either be freezing or we will suffocate from the heat. If the sun were to rise a few minutes early or late, it would be a recipe for disaster. We now understand why the Torah is so demanding concerning each tribe's placement under his designated banner, and why the Levi who is supposed to sing is culpable of the death penalty if he is out of place.
Count the sons of Levi according to their father's household… every male from one month of age and up shall you count them. Moshe counted them according to the word of Hashem. (3:15,16)
Perhaps the infants of Shevet Levi were precocious, but they certainly did not perform the service in the Sanctuary at the age of thirty-days old. Horav Moshe Feinstein, zl, explains that the members of other tribes were occupied with guarding and working the land. Thus, they were unable to devote as much time to their children's education as were the Leviim. Therefore, they were counted when they reached the age of twenty years. When they were still young, it was difficult to know if they would achieve the spiritual level required to represent the nation. At age twenty, the way in which they leaned was discernible. Shevet Levi grew up in homes that were replete with kedushah, sanctity. From day one, the suckling babies were imbued with a proclivity towards serving Hashem with all of their hearts and souls. Thus, they were counted as soon as they became viable human beings.
Rav Moshe concludes that, if the parents are bnei Torah, observant Jews devoted wholly to Torah ascendency, who strive to grow from strength to strength in Hashem's service; if Torah is their life, then it is possible to say that from birth the child will follow in their ways. Children gravitate towards the values they perceive in their home. When children grow up in a home in which duplicity is acceptable, in which spiritual hypocrisy is not frowned upon - it will be reflected in the children. Conversely, when children sense their parents' commitment, devotion and sacrifice for Torah observance - it, too, will be reflected and, quite possibly, enhanced.
Chazal point out the difficulty for Moshe Rabbeinu in executing this census. It is not as if the infants could stand outside of their parents' tent and convey their pedigree and other vital information. For Moshe to enter the Levite tents to count the suckling babies would have been inappropriate. Chazal note Moshe's dialogue with Hashem. "How can I enter the tents to count the infants?" Moshe asked. Hashem replied, "You do yours, and I will do Mine." Moshe went to the tent and presented himself outside of it. Hashem preceded him, and a Heavenly Voice proclaimed the number of babies in the tent. Why was it necessary to do it this way? Why did Moshe have to stand outside while Hashem gave him the count? Since it was Hashem Who was doing the counting, Moshe could have sat in his "office" and received the total from Hashem.
Hashem was teaching Moshe an important principle in Jewish service: "You do yours, and I will do Mine." We must not refrain from performing a mitzvah because it appears difficult or because the conditions surrounding it seem precarious. Our function is to do, to make the attempt. If we fall flat on our face - at least we have made the attempt. When we refuse to make the attempt, we are indicating that we really do not want to do it.
It is all about attitude. One either wants to perform the mitzvah, or he does not. If he wants to, he will do it, and if Hashem wants him to succeed, he will. Otherwise, he will sit back and conjure up all kinds of excuses for his failure to carry out the mitzvah. In the end result, it all amounts to one reason: he did not really want to do it.
When Horav Aharon Kotler, zl, came to America, he was told by many that, in a land where materialism and physicality dominated the mindset of people, he had absolutely no chance of establishing a Lithuanian type yeshivah where Torah was studied lishmah, for its sake, with no other ulterior motives, off the ground - let alone have it succeed and impact the country. Rav Aharon paid no heed to the doomsayers and established Beth Medrash Govoha, the yeshivah, which, amongst a few others, transformed the spiritual landscape of America.
The Alter, zl, m'Novorodok was wont to say, "The notion of whether I can achieve the goal never enters my mind; the only question I ever have is whether it is necessary." If something is required, if it has to be done, it is done. Nothing stands in the way of one's will and determination. The Toldos Yaakov Yosef says, "One who claims that he is unable to do something, it is because he does not want to do it. Had he wanted to, he would have been able." If one believes in Hashem, he will ultimately also believe in himself. Our faith in the Almighty carries us through the most difficult times, the most compelling challenges. Horav Ezriel Tauber writes about his parents' faith, a faith which sustained them throughout the war years. Prior to World War II, the family resided in Pressburg, Hungary. The Germans entered Hungary in 1940, and his family moved to Czechoslovakia until 1942, when they returned to Hungary, hoping that the situation had become more bearable. In 1944, it all came to an end, as the Germans overran the country and sent the survivors to the death camps. During the war years, Rav Tauber's mother gave birth to three sons. Indeed, on the Friday night in 1944 when the family was transported to Auschwitz, his mother was pregnant with his sister!
Understandably, people thought that she had lost her mind. The ghetto was neither conducive to pregnancy, nor was it a healthy place to raise infants and children. Yet, this saintly woman did what was necessary to protect her family. As they hid in bombed out buildings and scrounged for morsels of food, she would say, "We are Jews. And, as such, we must do what is demanded of us. We will do ours - Hashem will do His." This was her maxim, a belief which guided her through the war, as she gave birth and raised four more children. While his sister did not survive the war, his mother and brothers did. Rav Tauber once asked his mother about her thoughts during the war: "Did you really think that we would survive the war? Why were you determined to increase your family at a time when you were acutely aware that people were dying, and that the chance that an infant would sur
vive was a dream? Where did you conjure up the strength of faith to have children, when everyone else worried about locating the next morsel of food?" His mother replied, "We are Yehudim; we believe in Techiyaas HaMeiseim, the Resurrection of the Dead. A child that is born is not only here for olam hazeh, this world. He remains a child la'netzach, for eternity! I have done what is expected of me. It is up to Hashem to do as He sees fit."
Horav Moshe Shapiro, Shlita, employs a similar concept in explaining the mitzvah of Sefiras HaOmer, counting of the Omer. The Torah says, Tisperu chamishim yom, "You shall count fifty days" (Vayikra 23:16). Veritably, we count forty-nine days/seven weeks. Where does the fiftieth day come into the picture? The Rosh Yeshivah explains that the fifty levels of purity coincide with an equal number of levels of impurity. Klal Yisrael was rushed out of Egypt because they were becoming perilously close to that fiftieth level of tumah, spiritual impurity, from which there is no return. It was necessary that they be expelled immediately from the spiritually corrupt, morally decadent land of Egypt. They were that close to spiritual extinction. Likewise, fifty levels of knowledge correspond to fifty levels of ignorance. We work our way up, rung by rung, until we reach the maximum that man alone can achieve - forty-nine levels - forty-nine days. Hashem tells us to count forty nine days - forty nine levels, because that is all we can attain. We prepare ourselves, however, for that which is humanely impossible - the fiftieth level. When we make it through the forty-ninth level, Hashem gives us a taste of the fiftieth. We are to do ours; He will do His and take us over the top. ואכלת ושבעת - V'achalta v'savata - You will eat and be satisfied. One would assume that, if one eats, he will be satiated. What is the blessing? Horav Shimon Schwab, zl, explains that we all have animal desires, the most powerful of which is to satisfy our hunger. Rashi explains that the brachah, blessing, is not concerning how much we eat, but rather, concerning the specific food that we eat. It will not take much food to satisfy our hunger. Our food is so richly endowed with Hashem's blessing that even eating a little will leave us satisfied. We have nutritional needs, and we have basic desires. The blessing is that once one has filled his body's nutritional requirements, he will no longer be hungry. He will have satiated his desire to eat more. This is alluded to in the pasuk in Tehillim 34:10, Yiru es Hashem kedoshav ki ein machsor liyireiav, "Fear G-d you, His holy ones, because those who fear Him lack nothing." Kedoshav refers to those who sanctify themselves by abstaining even from those activities/actions/behaviors which are permissible. They limit their indulgence even in areas where permission has been granted to indulge. These holy ones control themselves. Thus, one who curbs his appetite as an exercise in self-control is called a kadosh. This attitude generates a deeper sense of yiraas Shomayim, Heavenly fear. In turn, the individual will lack nothing, because Hashem will bless his food.
Mrs. Seliga Ahuva (Schur) Mandelbaum
Seliga Ahuva bas Harav Daniel a"h
by her family
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