This week’s Parsha, continues with the theme of counting the tribal families and enumerating their responsibilities and tasks. The Torah begins with what appears to be a simple phrase, “Naso Es Rosh Bnai Gershon (Count the sons of Gershon).” (Bamidbar 4:22) It is interesting that this mirrors the verbiage found in last week’s Parsha, “Se’u Es Rosh Kol Adas Bnai Yisroel (Count all the congregation of the Children of Israel).” (Bamidbar 1:2) In each of these instances, the Torah uses the word Rosh (head). TheShelah HaKadosh (Rav Yishaya Horowitz, 1565-1630) explains that in the eyes of God we are each considered a Rosh, a head, someone exceptionally significant. Society has many metrics by which it measures the success, value and worth of an individual. Some may measure the quality of a person based on their level of education, earning ability or material possessions. Others may measure individual greatness through the prism of pedigree and yichus. The Torah is teaching us that in the eyes of God, we each possess personal greatness; each of us is a Rosh. This personal greatness is inherent and innate.
But how do we activate this personal greatness? The answer to this question can be found in Pirkei Avos, Ethics of our Fathers. The great sage Yehuda ben Teyma states, “Be bold as a leopard, light as an eagle, swift as a deer, strong as a lion to carry out the will of your Father in Heaven.” (5:23) The Kitzur Shulchan Aruch (Rav Shlomo Ganzfried, 1804-1886) explains: “Be bold as a leopard” – Don’t be afraid to perform the mitzvos (commandments) even if others will mock you. Doing what is right is often difficult and can raise the ire of those around you. Stand up for your ideals and don’t compromise on the fundamental tenants of your faith. Be bold in doing what needs to be done. “Light as an eagle” – The eagle flies high and directs its sights to the heavens above. The eagle can’t spend its time constantly looking downward or it will fail to reach its intended destination. In life there are many things which hold us down. Failure, broken relationships and shattered dreams tether us to our current reality and prevent us from achieving growth. If you are always looking down, you can’t move forward. Set your sights high, dream new dreams, create new goals, forge new relationships and learn to soar. Identify that which is holding you back and devise the strategy to transcend and soar above it. “Swift as a deer” – One should always run to do good. Grab the opportunities to accomplish something great. Don’t wait for the perfect moment, make the current moment perfect. Take advantage of beautiful life opportunities while they are still yours for the taking. “Strong like a lion” – Be committed in your service of God. Develop the strength to honor your obligations towards God and your fellow man on an ongoing basis. There may be times when you aren’t feeling inspired. In those moments find your lion-like strength to fulfill your responsibilities. Consistency and continuity are the cornerstones of religious identity.
It is here in this seemingly simple statement that Yehuda ben Teyma gives us the key to activating our personal greatness. Stand up for what you believe in, even if the world mocks you. Focus on upward growth and don’t get mired in downward negativity. Run to seize your life opportunities. Live a life of committed and continuous service to your God and your people.
Yehuda ben Teyma looks to the animal kingdom for examples of character traits that we are to emulate. The comparison to the leopard, eagle and lion are clear. But why the deer? The fastest animal is not the deer – it is the cheetah. If Yehuda ben Teyma wanted to convey the need for speed in our performance of mitzvos and in the seizing of life opportunities why doesn’t he instruct us to be “swift like the cheetah?”
Rabbi Nachman of Breslov (1772-1810) explains that the deer is unique within the animal kingdom. Whenever the deer takes leaps forward towards a new destination – it always looks back. It checks to see if the herd is safe. It looks back to make sure its fellow deer are settled and secure. No matter how long the journey forward, it continues to look back.
Yehuda ben Teyma intentionally chose the deer to teach us an important lesson. As we strive for self-actualization and try to become bold, committed and soar to the heavens, we must always remember to look back. We must remember our responsibility to our people. We cannot focus on self-growth to the exclusion of our national responsibilities. If we are growing but not keeping an eye as to what is happening with our brothers and sisters, our growth is deficient. If we move forward but don’t look back and figure out how to help the rest of the herd, then we are not serving God, we are serving ourselves. We must learn to grow as individuals while simultaneously doing what we can to help the other and care for our nation.
We are each a Rosh, we are each important and significant. We have so much to offer, so much we can become, and so much we can accomplish. But we can only be aRosh, if we maintain the connection to Kol Adas Bnai Yisroel, (the nation of the Children of Israel). We must grow as individuals – but we must always remember to look back.
Weekly class delivered at Women’s Institute of Torah.
“The Lord spoke to Moses in the Sinai Desert, in the Tent of Meeting on the first day of the second month, in the second year after the exodus from the land of Egypt, saying. Take the sum of all the congregation of the children of Israel, by families following their fathers’ houses; a head count of every male according to the number of their names.” (Bamidbar 1:1-2)
The fourth book of the Torah begins in a rather non-dramatic fashion: a count, a simple tallying of the tribes. But why was this necessary? At first glance it would appear this was done in preparation for entry into the Land of Israel. The Jewish people would have to raise an army to fight against the indigenous nations of Canaan. God commands Moshe to count the men from age twenty in order to ascertain the size of the national fighting force. However, Levi is counted separately from the other tribes and is reckoned from the age of one month. Rashi explains the count was not to gauge the size of the potential army, rather, “Mitoch Chibasan L’fanav MonehOsam B’Chol
But then something fascinating occurs. “These are the descendants of Moses and Aaron on the day that the Lord spoke to Moses at Mount Sinai. These are the names of the sons of Aaron: Nadab the firstborn Abihu, Elazar, and Ithamar.”(Bamidbar 3:1-2)
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888) explains:
“For in all these chapters of numbers, only those are mentioned of the dead who formed the separate branches of the tribes and families, but of the living only those are named who had some official public position as Nesiim (tribal princes) and Kohanim (priests). But our Moses allowed his sons to be quite absorbed in the masses without any special distinction, he did not even have a small position, a tiny title, a small badge for his own children.” (Bamidbar 3:1)
There were two different groups of individuals listed in the counting. Those who founded the major families and had since died and those who became contributors and assumed active positions of leadership within the Jewish people. Moshe’s sons are not counted by name (though they are included in the total tally) because they did not contribute to the Jewish people in a substantive manner. Aharon’s sons were given the mantle of the priesthood. They served and they contributed.
Our precious Torah is conveying to us a truly profound lesson. Life is about rolling up your sleeves and seeing what you can do to advance your family, your community, your people and your world. Too often, we sit back and expect others to do for us, to give to us and to provide for us. Too often, we expect that others will do the heavy lifting while we sit on the side and benefit from the fruits of their labor. This unfortunate mindset is prevalent in many areas of life. Spouses assume that the other will do the necessary work to improve the marriage saying, “I’m ready and willing to have a blissful marriage, but you, my significant other should do all the work.” Parents want their children to be committed and passionate Jews but sometimes fail to be true spiritual role-models. We are quick to point out the flaws in our schools, shuls, communities, leaders and nation, but are we committed enough to actually work to improve them?
The counting conducted in the beginning of Bamidbar is no ordinary count. It is the “who’s who” of the Jewish people. It is the Judaic honor role that pays homage to those who dedicated themselves to advancing the nationhood and destiny of the Jewish people. For whatever the reason, Moshe’s children did not follow in the footsteps of their illustrious father. They did not lead lives of committed contribution; they did not dedicate their abilities and talents to the Jewish nation.
Our goal is to forge a meaningful identity that will continue to inspire even when we are no longer here. We must roll up our sleeves. We have to work, we have to contribute. We cannot be spectators in our personal, communal and national lives. We must rise to the occasion and make a difference whenever and wherever we can. This Shabbos we read the names of men who lived thousands of years ago but through whose efforts we live today. Let us become the kind of people whose efforts will shape the world in which we live and whose memory will inspire for generations to come.
“If you follow My statutes and observe My commandments and perform them, I will give your rains in their time, the Land will yield its produce, and the tree of the field will give forth its fruit. Your threshing will last until the vintage, and the vintage will last until the sowing; you will eat your food to satiety, and you will live in security in your land.” (Vayikra, 26:3-5)
It appears to be a simple formula: do what God asks of you and things will work out well; disobey and there will be catastrophic circumstances. Despite the simplicity of the message, there is an obvious yet profound theological issue; at times the righteous suffer and the wicked prosper. Life doesn’t always seem to follow the pattern articulated in the verse. But there is another simpler, more nuanced question I would like to focus on. We are taught in Pirkei Avos (Ethics of Our Fathers):
“Antignos of Socho received the tradition from Shimon the Righteous. He would say: Do not be as slaves, who serve their master for the sake of reward. Rather, be as slaves who serve their master not for the sake of reward. And the fear of Heaven should be upon you (1:3).”
The great sage, Antignos teaches us that one should not serve God for the sake of receiving reward! How do we reconcile this teaching with the verses in the beginning of these week’s Parsha?
The Ohr HaChaim (Rabbi Chaim Attar, 1696-1743) explains that God isn’t promising reward, He is allowing us to share in the bounty we help to create through our dynamic spiritual service. When we serve God, fulfill the mandates and mitzvos of the Torah, we create blessing in this world. God is promising us a portion in the very blessing we help to create.
Perhaps, we can take this idea a bit farther. There is a concept found in rabbinic literature, b’derech she’adam rotzeh ley’lech, molichin oso (the path which a person chooses to take, is the path he is led down). God gives us the gift of bechira (free choice). We have the right to choose our direction and lifestyle and when we clearly articulate through word or deed the path we intend to take, God assists us in travelling down that road. As such, when we person decides to be holy, to live a meaningful life and positively impact the world, God helps him/her make this a reality. One of the greatest challenges we face in this temporal, physical world is seeing to our material needs. Anyone who has ever experienced financial hardship knows that monetary stress is not an issue, it becomes the issue. Financial stress impacts everything from shalom bayis (marital harmony), to self-esteem. For most of us, when there is financial stress, there is often little bandwidth for spirituality. When one is struggling financially it often takes all his inner strength to just keep his head above water. Perhaps, this is what God is telling us. Im b’chukosai tey’leychu, u’mitzvosai tishmiru, (If you follow My statutes and observe My commandments and perform them): if you make the conscious decision in word and deed to live a life of holiness, to find your inner spiritual strength, to become something beautiful and necessary, then, v’nasati gishmeychem b’itam (I will give your rains in their time). This is not a reward for your good deeds, this is the investment capital to allow you to continue on your journey of spiritual growth. God looks to us to make the decision about the people we want to be and lives we want to lead. If we make the right kind of decisions, if we are truly genuine in our desire to be something better, then He will help us along this path, removing some of the material obstacles which are often a source of stress.
Life is often not as black and white as articulated in the above-mentioned verses. There are many factors which go into God’s decision making and running of the universe. But the message is clear. Decide on the kind of person you want to be and life you want do lead. Articulate your goals and life aspirations. Decide how you are going to make the world a better place. Know in your heart, that if your decisions are the correct, God will help you along your life journey.
“And you shall not wrong, one man his fellow Jew, and you shall fear God, for I am the Lord, your God.” (Vayikra 25:17)
The Torah is replete with laws that govern our inter-personal conduct. We are taught how to treat the other person and his property. We are obligated to help another in need and to be sensitive to the challenges and difficulties of our fellow Jew. So what is the Torah coming to teach us in the above quoted verse? We are commanded to help and aid when another is in need. Is it necessary to tell us that we “shall not wrong” another? What is being added here that has not been conveyed in the commandments that precede and follow these words?
The Talmud (Bava Metziah 58b) explains that this verse comes to warn us against a very specific transgression: wronging another with our words.
Our Rabbis taught: “You shall not therefore wrong one man his fellow Jew;” Scripture refers to verbal wrongs. E.g., if a man is a penitent, one must not say to him, ‘Remember your former deeds.’ If he is the son of proselytes he must not be taunted with, ‘Remember the deeds of your ancestors.’ If he is a proselyte and comes to study the Torah, one must not say to him, ‘Shall the mouth that ate unclean and forbidden food, abominable and creeping things, come to study the Torah which was uttered by the mouth of Omnipotence!’ If he is visited by suffering, afflicted with disease, or has buried his children, one must not speak to him as his companions spoke to Job, ‘Remember, I pray thee, whoever perished, being innocent?’”
Words are powerful and can deliver a blow far more debilitating than any fist. The Talmud teaches us important principles in the realm of interpersonal conduct. Don’t dwell on things of the past that cannot be changed. Don’t tell a person that as a result of his past mistakes he has limited his future. Don’t try to give insight into the suffering of another. True omniscience is reserved for God. Every person carries a burden of their past. Every person has things they wish they could change, but cannot. Every person has things they wish they could do over, but life does not afford us that opportunity. Be sensitive to this reality, be sensitive to the burden of the other.
But there is another message as well. The great Chassidic leader, Rav Simcha Bunim of Pshischa (1765-1827) writes, “Who is a Chassid (pious individual)? One who goes above and beyond that which is required. The Torah tells us not to wrong another; this is the law. Piety, to go above and beyond, requires that we not wrong ourselves.”
The Rebbe teaches us a profound lesson. We all make mistakes. We do things that are wrong, we engage in behaviors and actions that we know are beneath us and undermine our personal growth. As a result we begin to look down on ourselves, we begin to feel we are worthless, devoid of potential and lack any prospect of becoming holy and significant. Don’t wrong yourself. Don’t compound the sin by losing faith in yourself. It is important to remember that despite engaging in negative activity, at our core, we are good. God created each of us with a beautiful and pure soul and no matter how many mistakes we make this soul remains intact and unsullied.
And you shall not wrong, one man his fellow Jew: simple words that yield profound lessons. Words hurt and can create irreparable damage. Don’t visit pain upon the other. Don’t visit pain upon yourself. We face so many challenges, both personal and national. We have obstacles and hurdles that we must overcome. Don’t create additional obstacles for another with hurtful and harmful words. Don’t create additional barriers for yourself with negative self-perception and image. Build up the other, build up yourself and pave the way for accomplishment and fulfillment.