Sharing in the Pain, Sharing in the Joy
Bamidbar is also known as the book of Numbers (חומש הפקודים), because it contains several counts taken of the Jewish people. In taking the mandated census, Moshe was commanded to have not only his brother Aharon with him, but to also invite twelve leaders, one from each tribe, to stand with him when he would take the census (1:4). The Torah then enumerates the names of each of these twelve men (1:5-15): Elitzur ben Shedeur, Shelumiel ben Tzurishaddai, Nachshon ben Amminadav, etc. We discover in next week’s parsha, Naso, that these are the exact same twelve men who inaugurated the Altar in the Mishkan by bringing special korbanos at the very beginning of the Mishkan’s operation (7:2).
Connecting the dots
Why were these twelve men chosen, and why did Hashem see fit to enumerate their names? Rashi (to 7:2) quotes a Midrash which states that these men were already leaders while the Jews were still in Egypt. But their leadership was anything but honorific. In fact, it was quite painful and abasing to represent the Jewish slaves, especially when, as is recorded at the end of Parshas Shemos, the Jews were expected to meet their brick quota while being denied the essential ingredient of straw in order to manufacture the bricks (Ex. ch. 5). There, the Torah states that the Jewish representatives to Pharaoh’s slave operation bore the brunt of the punishment when the Jews could not meet their quota (5:14):
וַיֻּכּוּ שֹׁטְרֵי בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֲשֶׁר־שָׂמוּ עֲלֵהֶם נֹגְשֵׂי פַרְעֹה לֵאמֹר מַדּוּעַ לֹא כִלִּיתֶם חָקְכֶם לִלְבֹּן כִּתְמוֹל שִׁלְשֹׁם גַּם־תְּמוֹל גַּם־הַיּוֹם
The Jewish officers who were appointed by Pharaoh’s taskmasters were beaten, because of the argument: “Why haven’t you fulfilled the quota as you had been doing previously?”
These men went to Pharaoh’s palace and begged for mercy, but to no avail. The Torah writes (5:19) that they found themselves in the terrible situation of requiring an impossible quota from their brethren. Instead of forcing their fellow Jews to overwork and be broken, they absorbed the painful beatings from the Egyptian taskmasters.
Rewarded for Being Punished
We may even find a slight allusion to this Midrash in the words of our parsha, which states, somewhat bizarrely that (1:17) “וַיִּקַּח מֹשֶׁה וְאַהֲרֹן אֵת הָאֲנָשִׁים הָאֵלֶּה אֲשֶׁר נִקְּבוּ בְּשֵׁמֹת:” – “Moshe and Aharon took these men, whose names were specified.” The phrase “אֲשֶׁר נִקְּבוּ בְּשֵׁמֹת” – “whose names were specified” is completely superfluous, and it’s also worded strangely. But perhaps it can also be translated as: “who were weakened / injured (since “נִקְּב֖וּ” can also be translated as punctured or weakened) in the book of Shemos.” Because they took a beating for their brethren, they were rewarded with rising to greatness after the Exodus.
But it’s also quite apropos for their greatness to be manifest in these two incidents, both in our parsha, in joining Moshe and Aharon as census takers, and in next week’s parsha as offering inaugural sacrifices for their respective tribes. In order to properly take a census, one must have care, concern, and affection for each individual who is being counted, since each and every person counts. This is why the Torah uses the word “שא” when commanding the census. It doesn’t just mean “to count”, but also “to lift up” or hold in high regard. Imagine these twelve men, looking into the eyes of each person who passed before them for the census, thinking only about their connection to and feelings of love for each person for whom they had taken another blow of the club or whip back in Egypt.
Similarly, in order for one’s korban to be effective for one’s entire tribe and to truly be considered a communal sacrifice, one must be able to completely lose one’s own ego and sense of self and think only of one’s tribesmen when offering the flour and animal on the Altar. We can certainly appreciate how each of these twelve men, who had demonstrated this kind of selflessness in the past, was able to put himself aside and think only of his people.
This is reminiscent of a Midrash that directly pertains to our upcoming festival of Shavuos. We read of Yitro’s visit to his son-in-law, Moshe, in the book of Shemot immediately before the Jews stand at Mount Sinai to hear the Ten Commandments and accept the Torah. There’s a verse that acts as a bridge between these two narratives and reads (18:27): “וַיְשַׁלַּח מֹשֶׁה אֶת־חֹתְנוֹ וַיֵּלֶךְ לוֹ אֶל־אַרְצוֹ:” – Moshe sent his father-in-law away, and he returned to his land. Why did Moshe feel it necessary to send Yitro back home, especially at this most crucial historical juncture when Bnei Israel were about to receive the Torah?
The Midrash answers using a verse from Proverbs (14:10): “לֵב יוֹדֵעַ מָרַּת נַפְשׁוֹ וּבְשִׂמְחָתוֹ לֹא־יִתְעָרַב זָר:” – “The heart knows its own bitterness; and during its happiness, no stranger may mix in.” If Yitro was at home, safe and secure, when Bnei Israel were entrenched in hard labor, he was oblivious to their bitterness. It would not be appropriate for him to enjoy their success at Mount Sinai. Only someone who truly suffers with the Jewish people can enjoy their sweet victories, the most important being the acceptance of the Torah.
Only these twelve men, who truly tasted the bitterest rod of affliction on behalf of their brethren, could enjoy Israel’s greatest moments of success during their glorious census and the inauguration of their holy place. How can we emulate them?
Being Counted Amongst the Jews of Eretz Yisrael
Today, Bnei Israel living in the Land of Israel faces danger and travail. We trust, hope, and pray that this danger is fleeting, and that Israel’s enemies come to their senses and realize that violence is never the pathway to peace. But it seems that Israel is alone in its suffering. The heart of Israel knows its own bitterness, but the rest of the world watches on with apathy and defends violence by creating moral equivalencies and media distortions of the facts on the ground.
It is so important, especially today, to share in the burden of that pain, the pain of the millions of Jews in Israel. We share the pain of the death, damage, and trauma to our family in Eretz Israel. If we are to participate in the simcha of our brethren, we must also participate in their bitterness. If we wish to celebrate and be counted with the Jewish people in Eretz Israel, to receive the Torah with them, to enjoy the successes of the modern State of Israel, and eventually to see the rebuilding of our Temple and our Altar, we must first share in the sadness and trauma. We can do so even from afar, through our prayers and good deeds on behalf of our loved ones in Israel. As the Psalmist writes (126:5), “הַזֹּרְעִים בְּדִמְעָה בְּרִנָּה יִקְצֹרוּ:” – Those who plant with tears, will reap with joy.
Not only did these twelve men merit to be part of the census and the Mishkan’s inaugural; they were also each identified by name TWICE in the Torah. This was a special gesture of appreciation shown to them for their valor and sacrifice on behalf of the rest of Klal Yisrael. When Mashiach comes, wouldn’t it be great if your name appears in the list of people who cared, prayed, and sacrificed for our brethren? We have that opportunity today and every day. Let’s make sure that our names are counted as well. Take this Shabbat and this Shavuot as a time not only of reaccepting the Torah, but also of reaccepting your brothers and sisters throughout the world. Let us stand “כאיש אחד בלב אחד” and feel for each other. May our efforts trigger the ultimate Redemption so that we can all return to Eretz Israel swiftly, bb”a.