The part of poetry that I love the most, beyond spinning words and thoughts into what sounds like spaces I would want to travel, is that much like visual art, the reader interprets in the way they want or may need to in the moment and takes away what they may. This week’s poem goes something like this:
how a day
on its contrast
last to last
but closer to
to a question
you’ve only been guessing
This week, we near the end of Sefirat HaOmer, the counting of the days between Pesach and Shavuot. This counting is meant to prepare us to receive the living Torah on Shavuot; it is our ascendance to what the Kabbalah calls the 50th Gate, the Gate of Understanding (Binah). As we ascend, we are finding that we all have a Nefesh Elokit (a part of God), so the truth lies within each of us. We just need to transcend the layers of doubt and unlock the powerful truth and redemption that awaits. All of this begins with Pesach, which in Likutei Halachot is explained as ‘Peh Sach’, literally “a talking mouth.” This means that the only way to reach the upper levels of holiness is through speech, through tefillah (prayer), the true speech of calling out to Hashem. The blessings you receive correlate to the words that you speak– this is the power of counting out loud with the blessings of Sefirat HaOmer.
The opening verse of this week’s parsha, Bamidbar, reads:
וַיְדַבֵּ֨ר ה’ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֛ה בְּמִדְבַּ֥ר
“And God spoke to Moses in the desert.”1
The word מדבר/midbar (“desert”) and דבר/dibur (“speech”) share the same root. Speech represents freedom, and the desert landscape is a metaphor for freedom– it’s a place where the Shechinah (the Divine Presence) showed most clearly to Moshe– at the Burning Bush and Mt. Sinai– and to the Children of Israel– in the ananei hakavod (clouds of glory) and countless other examples. The desert is a place without distraction, where humility lives. It’s a place where the dance with Divine consciousness paves the path to unification.
This week, we start the fourth book of the Torah, Bamidbar, which means, “in the wilderness” or “in the desert,” and covers the continuing journeys of the Jews in the desert after the revelation at Sinai. In English, however, we call this book ‘Numbers’. And while we count the days leading up to receiving the Torah, we learn that Moshe and Aharon are instructed to count the Jewish people in the Sinai Desert, and so the book is known as simply, ‘Numbers’. At this point in the narrative, there have already been two censuses taken, but this one is different. The census is taken of the twelve tribes of Israel. Moses counts 603,550 men between the ages of 20 and 60 years old, while the tribe of Levi are counted separately and number 22,300 males, ages one month and older.
שְׂאוּ אֶת ראש כל עדת בני ישראל
Count the heads of the entire assembly of the Children of Israel2
Rashi explains the powerful verse as Hashem choosing to count the Jews to demonstrate His love for them. But with everything in this world, there is a balance– the potential for good and the potential for “bad”. The verse is translated as “count the heads”, but literally it means raise the heads. This fits nicely with Rashi’s interpretation, because the count is meant to elevate the Jewish people and ascribe greatness to them. The other end of this, though, is where the Midrash comes in,3 pointing out that the same words can also mean remove the heads, which we have seen previously in Genesis: “Pharaoh will remove your head from you and hang you on a tree.”4 We are meant to learn from here that the men counted in this census were originally destined to die in the desert, as a punishment for the sins of the Spies. But instead of that descent, there was an ascent, and Hashem counted his precious children.
We read, “As Hashem had commanded Moshe, he counted them.”5 One might think that Moshe had counted the men, as one would to determine its military strength or some other strategic purpose. But it’s clear that he did not do this of his own accord, only because Hashem had requested that he do so. Other peoples take censuses in order to be prepared for what battles may come. But this does not apply to the Jewish people, who have emunah in Hashem, Who will protect them regardless of the size of their army, as we have seen time and again throughout the wars waged against the Children of Israel.6
Counting them had no other purpose but elevation and appreciation, much like we would count anything precious to us. Some argue that the counting was to determine the number of people in each tribe, in order to divide the land of Israel in a fair manner. They say that the sins of the Spies had not yet happened when the count took place, so it must have been intended for fair division of the land. But, of course, Hashem knew that the sin would happen and that that generation would not enter the land of Israel. Knowing that they would sin and die in the desert (their heads would be “removed”), Hashem chose to elevate and raise their heads anyway. After all, they and their children are still the collective, Children of Israel, the chosen people– saved from exile in Egypt, brought through the desert, and given the Promised Land, Israel.
The world in its entirety was created just for you
When a person is being counted, they can look at it as if they themselves are so precious that they are being treasured in this way, or they could think that they don’t matter much as an individual, what they do doesn’t matter, because they are only being counted as part of a group, insignificant in comparison to the whole. Malbim’s Eretz Chemdah explains that each person is always both an individual and a part of a whole. Each and every one of us is a complete world, a microcosm of the whole. And we also share in the whole, like the stars to which we are compared. The stars taken altogether are a unit, but each star is a world unto itself, as it says in Yeshayahu, “Who brings forth their army in number and calls to all of them by name.”7
The Lubavitcher Rebbe elaborates on Rashi’s point that the counting was done to show Hashem’s love for us, saying that Hashem’s focus has to have been on the part of us that is equal, which is our essence, our Jewish soul. The point of the census was to bring the soul to our awareness.
The Rebbe also explains the difference between this third census and the first two. The first was when Moshe counted the Israelites’ when they went out of Egypt, identified each person who had made the courageous self-sacrifice, following the word of Hashem into the wilderness. Moshe again counted the Israelites when the Mishkan (Tabernacle) was built. The count and construction was done through the beka (half-shekel donation), which touched on both the intellect and emotion of the Israelites, as they prepared for the work that would bring the Shechinah/Divine presence down. Hashem commanded them, and the Israelites followed. This third count was different, though, because Moshe and Aharon both counted, and the Israelites, by their own emotion and action in the service of the Mishkan, brought Hashem into their midst. They created a union of their individual and collective Jewish souls with Hashem.
As we read earlier, “Take from among you an offering for Hashem. Whoever is generous of heart shall bring the offering of Hashem [to contribute to building the Mishkan”8 In Judaism, heart and action are intertwined, so “Every wise-hearted man among you shall come and do”, creating “excitations from below” through generosity drawn forth from above. This emotional and physical contribution creates a reciprocal relationship between God and man, and this is how “Hashem’s glory filled the Mishkan.”9
In an oft-quoted Mishnah from Mishnah Sanhedrin, it’s written, “Every human being is unique, and every human being is a copy of the prototype human being (Adam)…therefore, every human being must say, ‘For my sake the world was created.’”10 In Judaism, we believe that every being was created in the image and likeness of God. And from the same Mishnah, Chazal (Our Sages) teach, “that every life is like an entire universe.”11 It’s when our soul enters our body that this becomes true. A body without a soul is similar to any other, but when the awareness of the soul as part of the body is recognized by an individual, he or she can begin to live out one’s purpose– their potential to be an entire universe becomes apparent. To use the body, the finite, to spiritualize reality and to fulfill the Light of the Infinite, that is when the body is a vessel for the soul. That realization can take a person from a physical and spiritual desert (midbar) to a spiritual and physical promised land (Israel).
So, just as the verse can be interpreted as a descent or an ascent and a head looking down or being lifted up, so, too, is it true for the individual being counted, and how they walk away from that, feeling insignificant or uplifted. The Mishnah comes to teach the importance of each individual, so much so that each person is their own universe.
The Torah describes the Jewish people as ish echad b’lev echad (one person with one heart). So, even if we are being counted individually, we can’t view ourselves as separate entities. We are all essential in the wholeness of ourselves as a people viewed as one body. Just as a body is made up of countless elements that work in concert, so too are we as a people made up of individuals that contribute to the whole of the nation. And because of this, in truth, and if we could be on the level of feeling in such a way, when one of us is hurting, we are all hurting, just as when one part of our own body hurts, the entire body is affected. We can only be shalem (whole/complete) when we are all redeemed, when none of us is hurting.
Matan Torah (the Giving of the Torah) required 600,000 Jews to be present. Rashi goes so far as to say that if even one person was missing, even “the least significant” from the Tribe of Dan, Hashem would have not given the Torah.12 And we see this with the Torah itself: if even one letter in a Torah scroll is written incorrectly, missing or incomplete in any way, the entire Torah is rendered invalid.
How to use humility
Humility is important. Moshe was said to be the most humble person in the world, but that humility wasn’t a false sense of insignificance. He spoke to Hashem, he led the Jewish people. He knew how powerful he was, but he was humble because he believed that if someone else had been given the same talents and the same task, they might have done a better job than he did.
The Baal Shem Tov taught that humility in the wrong place will cause you to block your own and others’ blessings. If one thinks, “Who am I to do this good deed? What difference would it make? Who am I to pray for my friend? I am insignificant,” that person would be blocking the blessings and goodness that can come to them and through them. However, humility in the right place brings abundant blessings. Picture a rich person who invites everyone to his parties but spends the entire time talking about how rich and incredible he is. Everyone will leave being jealous and having ill feelings towards him, bringing negative thought and potentially negative action towards him. Now, picture that same person opening up his home, offering all that he has in a humble and loving and giving way. Everyone will leave feeling positive and thankful that such an individual was blessed with such treasures, because he is using them in such a way to give to others. His guests will not only feel uplifted and inspired, but with feelings of hope that this person can continue to do good and provide in such a way.
To further this point, Rebbe Nachman of Breslov told a colleague, Reb Yudel, that praying for a friend keeps a person from arrogance.13 Reb Yudel questioned the statement by pointing out that it would seem that one would become more arrogant by praying for a friend, because the implication is that that person praying is more important to G-d than the friend. The Rebbe answered him with a story:
There was a king who was angry with his son and sent him away. Afterwards, the prince placated his father, who agreed to have him back. The same thing happened several times, until at last the king was so angry that not only did he send his son away, but he also told one of his ministers that if the prince were to come along wanting to placate him, the minister should not allow him to enter. The minister obeyed, but he saw how much the prince was suffering because he could not get to his father to placate him. The minister realized that the king was also suffering, and he said to himself, `Surely I am the cause of all this since I am the barrier between them. I myself will go to the king and beg him to forgive the prince and allow him back.’ The minister did so, and the king immediately agreed.
The meaning of the story is obvious. Whenever a friend of ours is suffering, physically or spiritually, we should say, `Without a doubt my sins are the cause of all this. The Holy One, blessed be He, constantly desires to bestow blessings of goodness upon His children. But my sins are a barrier holding all this back. The solution is for me to plead with the King on behalf of my friend.’ When a person thinks like this, he will certainly not become arrogant. The root of arrogance is when a person prides himself on having qualities that his friend lacks.
But when a person believes that the only cause of his friend’s deficiency, spiritual or material, is the screen he himself has erected between his friend and the Holy One, blessed be He, Who wants to bestow blessings at all times, he will certainly not become arrogant. On the contrary, his pride will be broken and he will come to genuine humility.14
My dad15 was a Chaplain, a Rabbi in the Navy, and he traveled all over, and on occasion would bump into R’ Shlomo Carlebach. On occasion, Carlebach would tell him about the word “Shalom.” He said, “How can you say Shalom when you first meet someone and the same word when you say goodbye? Shalom comes from shalem — completeness. I was incomplete until I met you, but now that I met you, I am more complete than before. But, now that you are leaving, you are taking something away from me, and I say ‘shalom’ in the hope that someday you will come back and make me more complete again.”
We are all made in the image of Hashem, and with each positive interaction, we see another piece of Hashem, and we feel more complete. The first census coincides with Pesach, a time when “revelation comes from above,” Hashem’s love and mercy toward us is shown, but not by our own action or merit. After this period comes the Omer, a time of sacrifice, a time the Rebbe calls the “revelation that comes from below”, when, through Hashem’s grace, our own merit brings forth the Torah that will be revealed on Shavuot. The third census involved not just Moshe but Aharon, too. Whereas Moshe is Hashem’s channel for revelation from above, Aharon, the priest, elevates Israel from below. It is through this census that the Jew became aware not only of the blessings from above, but of the potential to unify with the Divine from below. And that is what prepares us for Shavuot and to receive the Torah.
In this time of counting, we realize that each day is a new beginning, a new opportunity to dance with the Divine.
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Notes & Sources
- Bamidbar 1:1
- Ibid 1:2
- Bamidbar Rabbah 1:11; cited by Ramban to v. 3
- Bereishit 40:19
- Numbers 1:19
- Darash Moshe, p. 227
- Yeshayahu 40:26
- Exodus 35:5
- Ibid 40:34
- Mishnah, Sanhedrin 4:5
- Ibid 4:4
- Shemot Rabbah 40:4, Rashi on Exodus 35:34
- Bava Kama 92a
- Tzaddik #447, A Portrait Of Rebbe Nachman By: Reb Noson of Breslov Translated by: Avraham Greenbaum
- Rabbi Sanford Shudnow