by Rabbi Eliyahu Safran
“Here’s the difference between us,” explains the Israeli prime minister. “We’re using missile defense to protect our civilians, and they’re using their civilians to protect their missiles.”
– Charles Krauthammer
“Take a census of all the congregation of Israel…” This pasuk from Parashat Bamidbar, “s’eu et rosh” is regularly translated as “counting” or “taking a census”. However, a literal translation of this command gives us a better insight into its power and meaning – “lift the head.” This translation seems to challenge the regular and familiar translation of these words. After all, what does “lifting one’s head” have to do with counting?
We know than no word or phrase in the Torah is arbitrary so again, why s’eu et rosh here?
Our everyday experience makes us expert at quantification. How many minutes to the hour? How much change can I expect? How many people can carpool in my car? Numbers matter. That said, as exact as we can be with manageable, countable numbers, we tend to lose sight of exactitude when the numbers grow too large.
When we represent something with a very large number – a population of half a billion, profits of two trillion dollars, the thousands of employees and yes, even the six million souls lost during the Holocaust – we use numbers not for exactitude but to represent an aggregate.
When the numbers grow too large, we do not speak of that number of individuals with specific and unique experiences, loves, desires and fears. We speak of the whole. In this whole the individual is inevitably lost.
In Parashat Bamidbar we come to appreciate how deeply God loves the individual. Indeed, the very first Rashi tells us that that is the reason God keeps counting us again and again – because He loves us! No one – not one – gets lost in God’s census. We lift our heads to Him. We are not merely counted but valued. Not only as a people but as individuals. Each one of us.
Judaism is individual-centric. At Creation, God could have created one billion humans, but He chose to create one Adam and one Chava, making clear that each life is the entire universe. None of us is to be lost in the sea of humanity. Rabbi Soloveitchik once explained the real power of a minyan by teaching that, yes, we must have a quorum to pray, to recite Kedusha, to read from the Torah but the ten individuals needed for the minyan are never swallowed up. Have nine individuals, have a single Yiddele missing and you have nothing.
The group does not exist but for the individuals.
And now, as we move to Parashat Naso, the Torah’s longest parasha, we learn about such important halachot as the Sotah, the Nazir, and Birkat Kohanim. These commands would be enough to carry any parasha but then, just as we come to the close of Naso, we are slowed down and read of the offerings of each of the Nesi’im brought to the dedication of the Mishkan.
Each Nasi on each of the dedication days. Such a long story as the Torah delineates each offering separately in nearly identical pesukim! Repetition after repetition. Why not just say they all brought the same korban? Why not save all those words and pesukim?
There are a couple of powerful lessons here. The first is offered by the Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, Ephraim Mirvis. Rabbi Mirvis cites the Midrash which extols Netanel ben Tzuar, the second Nasi to offer his korban, as the hero of this very lengthy passage. Why? Because by his action, he established a powerful and profound minhag.
In so many of our neighborhoods, everyone is always trying to “outdo” everyone else. If Moishe has two cars, Jacob must buy three. If Baruch’s son’s Bar Mitzvah cost forty thousand dollars, with “oye what a smorgasbord!” then Dovid’s son’s Bar Mitzvah had best cost forty-five thousand! With more food, more flowers, more musicians!
Not Netanel ben Tzuar. He felt no need to “outdo” Nahson be Aminadav. Nahson’s korban was good enough for God, it was good enough for Netanel. No more. No less. And his wisdom and example set the pattern for the other Nesi’im.
What a profound lesson for all of us! No need to go bankrupt throwing a simcha simply to outdo someone else! The Nesi’im brought the exact same offering. And God was pleased that no one sought to outdo the other, even for His sake and the sake of His sanctuary.
If this lesson in wise humility were the only lesson from this lengthy repetition it would be a worthwhile and valuable reason to read these many pesukim with their identical descriptions. However, there is an even more powerful lesson to be learned from these words.
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks once asked the Catholic writer Paul Johnson what had struck him most about Judaism during the many years he’d taken researching his renowned, “A History of the Jews”. His response is very instructive. “There have been,” he said, “in the course of history, societies that emphasized the individual – like the secular West today. And there have been others that placed weight on the collective – communist Russia or China, for example.” However, Judaism, he went on to say, was the most successful example he’d ever encountered that struck the delicate balance between both, valuing both the individual and the collective.
The conclusion of Naso, detailing the dedication of the Mishkan and the offering of each individual Nasi, perfectly encapsulates the balance Paul Johnson marveled about. Each Nasi representing his individual tribe, came together with a communal offering in the first shared House of God, the Mishkan.
Okay, fine and good. But even this explanation does not help us understand why each of the Nesi’im brought the same korban or why we must read pasuk after pasuk enumerating the same thing.
Ramban offers us two explanations. The first, that the repetition honors each Nasi by specifying his tribe and his sacrifice on his designated day. Since it is impossible that every Nasi could be the first to bring the offering, then each Nasi was honored with his own day to bring his tribe’s offering. The second reason is that each of the Nesi’im independently decided to bring the very same korban and gifts for the dedication. Ramban elaborates that each of the Nesi’im had unique kavanot, intentions, associated with their korbanot. For example, Judah was focused on malchut, sovereignty. Zevulun on success in commerce. Yissachar on success in Torah learning. So, while it is true that all brought the same korban, each came with his own goal and perspective.
That is, each came as an individual.
Individuality, uniqueness, does not mean having a different korban but rather investing my korban with my unique persona, my own spiritual kavanot. It is only in the most superficial way that the korbanot were the same. Each was profoundly unique.
That is exactly the power, I believe, that Johnson recognized in Jewish culture and tradition. Each strand, everyone, in the national fabric is strong and unique. Rabbi Soloveitchik notes that in addition to each individual, each tribe had its own unique identity, talents and strengths, consistent with the unique blessing each received from Yaakov. This uniqueness was symbolized by each tribe’s flag and color. When the flags flew together, they formed a complete spectrum, the totality of K’lal Yisrael.
This lesson from the tribes is a lesson worth relearning in each generation. There is, as always, a need today for every segment of our community to better appreciate and respect all who “travel and camp with them”, as did the tribes of old. We all bring the same sacrifices, we read the same Torah, same Shulchan Aruch, lay the same tefillin and adorn our homes with the same mezzuzot. But we are not all in the same tribe. We each live in our community, each with its own colors, own flags, own yarmulke, hat or shtreimel. We daven in our own shuls.
Yes, all tribes bring the same korban, but each tribe is not the same, and everyone within that tribe is unique. It is in our uniqueness that the full beauty of our community becomes clear.
We are one. We are not the same.
This is the reason we linger so long at the end of parashat Naso. In the reading and the repetition, we learn the fullness of this lesson.
Even as the Torah reinforces the lesson of individual uniqueness and value, we see how individuals are rendered meaningless by so many others. Nothing could distinguish Israel from her neighbors in this regard more than the horror that is occurring on the border with Gaza even as I write this. As Hamas and the other so-called Palestinian “leaders” enjoy their corrupt luxury, they urge the people to the border like sheep to the slaughter with no care or thought of their individual value. To them, they are little more than “cannon fodder”. Their worth, if they have any, is as a cog in a large, inchoate “movement.”
These Palestinians, abandoned by those tasked with responsibility for their community, rightly feel imprisoned. But their prison is not Gaza. It is the spiritual prison in which their value and worth as children of God is totally ignored by their leaders.
Even now, as so many decry Israel’s defense of her border, we are learning that of the nearly sixty people killed at the border, more than fifty were actually Hamas members, terrorists according to Washington. In fact, Egypt ordered the Hamas leader to halt the protests after it was learned that Hamas had been physically forcing Palestinians – including children – to the border.
Could there be a more vivid distinction as to how communities perceive, and value, their members? As Charles Krauthammer noted in an opinion piece in The Washington Post in July 2014, “Israel accepts an Egyptian-proposed Gaza cease-fire; Hamas keeps firing. Hamas deliberately aims rockets at civilians; Israel painstakingly tries to avoid them, actually telephoning civilians in the area and dropping warning charges, so-called roof knocking.”
Only when everyone values individuals more than missiles, will there be peace in the land.