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Parshas Bamidbar/ Environmental Protection

“Moshe counted them according to Hashem’s word, as he was commanded” (Bamidbar 3:16).

The book of Bamidbar opens with the first of its several censuses of B’nei Yisrael. (Because of all this counting, the book was originally known not as Bamidbar [In the Wilderness] but as Chumash HaPekudim, the Book of the Counted!) After tallying everyone but the tribe of Levi, Moshe Rabbeinu was commanded to number the Levi’im as well, “every male from a month old and upward” (ibid. 3:15). Though our pasuk seems to indicate that Moshe promptly complied, Rashi informs us that it wasn’t so simple.

Quoting the Midrash, Rashi explains that Moshe actually hesitated to conduct this census, deeming it improper to enter everyone’s tents in order to count each child. Hashem then told him, “You do yours, and I’ll do Mine.” So Moshe stood outside each tent, and a heavenly voice announced how many resided there. That’s why our pasuk says Moshe counted the people “according to Hashem’s word.”

The VaYomer Yehudah wonders why this miracle was necessary. After all, the Torah dates these events to “the first day of the second month” (ibid. 1:1), i.e., Iyar, known for pleasant spring weather. So why not just ask the mothers to bring their babies outside to be counted?

Inner Sanctum

Answers the VaYomer Yehudah: Moshe understood that just as he didn’t belong in someone else’s home, children don’t belong in the street. To protect them from the dangers of that environment, it was even worth “imposing” on the Shechinah to visit every tent and report the number of family members to Moshe waiting outside.

Parshas Bamidbar is generally read around Shavuos, which marks the end of the school year and the beginning of summer vacation. So this lesson is particularly timely. We must remember that the sights and sounds of the street are often antithetical to fear of Heaven. Street talk certainly doesn’t teach manners and refinement. We have to make sure our children don’t get caught up in that culture, losing all the Jewish identity they’ve gained during the school year.

House Beautiful

In his Da’as Shraga, Rabbi Shraga Grosbard explains Moshe’s reluctance to enter the tents of others.

Jumping ahead to parshas Balak, we read how Bilam sought to curse the Jews, but when “Bilam lifted his eyes and saw Israel dwelling according to its tribes, the Divine spirit rested upon him” (Bamidbar 24:2). As Rashi explains, Bilam saw that their doors didn’t face each other. He was so impressed with this respect for privacy that he declared in the very next pasuk, “How good are your tents, O Yaakov, Your dwellings, O Yisrael.” Gazing upon Jewish homes is so instructive and inspiring that even wicked Bilam was seized with prophetic spirit as a result.

How much more so would this have been the case for Moshe Rabbeinu, who appreciated every Jewish home as a world unto itself, from which there’s so much to learn. That’s why Moshe didn’t want to enter the tents: If he had, he would have been distracted by all the wisdom to be gained there, and the census would have taken forever!

Looking Within/Staying Home

In summation, may we steer clear of the street and its negative influences, focusing instead on the home and all its positive ones.

Question for Discussion

What’s something you learned in someone else’s home?

Response

Yoni Greenberg of Los Angeles, studying in yeshivah in Jerusalem:

Last Shabbos, I ate dinner with a Chassidic family in Me’ah She’arim. I didn’t expect much, especially since the building in which the family lives looks ransacked from the outside. But it turned out to be a beautiful, three-story home, and I was one of seventy guests! That was lesson one: Don’t judge a book by its cover.

Lesson two had to do with how the host conducted himself. He didn’t sit down to eat the entire meal. Instead he kept circulating among all the guests, chatting with each and checking if anyone needed anything. He must have checked in with me alone three to four times. I learned the value of making your guests comfortable and attending to their needs.

Rick, an attorney from Baltimore, living in Jerusalem:

I often eat Shabbos meals with a family in the Sha’arei Chesed neighborhood of Jerusalem. The one lesson that really pops out at me is the father’s focus on his children. He’s very involved in discussing the parshah with them, drawing them into the beauty of learning Torah by rewarding correct answers with candies. He gives his attention to each child, regardless of age. Truly inspiring.

Moriya, our twelve-year-old daughter:

Whenever I visit our neighbor Rosa Romanowski, I get another lesson in how to have guests. Rosa, who’s old enough to be my grandmother, greets me with the biggest smile – just as she greets everyone – and makes me feel really, really welcome. Even with all the great food she serves and everything else she does, the most enjoyable thing is her greeting, which says loud and clear, “I’m happy to have you!”

At Shabbos lunch, we were joined by six American college students visiting Israel on a two-week program.

All shared lessons learned from their campus rabbis, be they in Michigan, Florida, Indiana, etc.: how hospitable each rabbi and his family are, treating them like family whenever they’re over (which is quite often).

Shoshana, sixteen, living in Jerusalem:

I was babysitting this week, and the mother apologized for the mess in her apartment. The only thing I saw out of place was a doll on the sofa. Otherwise, everything was tidy as could be.

I concluded that I’m a slob! In my room, everything’s out of place. I follow the “FSA” filing system – First Surface Available. It works for me, but I learned that everyone has different standards.



Shavuos #1/ Recreating the World – and Ourselves

“On Shavuos the world is judged regarding the fruit of the tree” (Mishnah, Rosh HaShanah 1:2).

Like Rosh HaShanah, Shavuos is a day of both celebration and scrutiny. Though we celebrate Shavuos as the day we received the Torah, the Matnas Chaim notes that it’s also a day of judgment. As such, just like Rosh HaShanah, it demands preparation. Thus Ezra ordained that the Jews read the curses in the book of Vayikra before Shavuos and those in the book of Devarim before Rosh HaShanah, “to mark the end of the year and its curses” (Megillah 31b). So Shavuos also begins a new year, just like Rosh HaShanah. But how?

The Mishnah (Rosh HaShanah 1:2) tells us that the fruit of the trees is judged on Shavuos. The Shelah explains that just as Hashem inspects man’s deeds on Rosh HaShanah, the anniversary of the creation of the world, He inspects the world’s deeds – its “fruit” – on Shavuos, the day of the giving of the Torah, which recreated the world. How are we to understand this recreation?

The Day the World Awaited

The Torah describes the various days of creation as “one day … a second day … a third day,” and so on. Yet it concludes by referring to “the sixth day.” Rashi explains that the intent here is actually the sixth day of Sivan, Shavuos, because the continued existence of everything Hashem had created depended on our accepting the Torah.

So Shavuos really is like Rosh HaShanah, marking the creation of the world; hence it too is a day of judgment.

Acceptance and Repentance

The Yerushalmi (Rosh HaShanah 4:8) points out that, regarding most korbanos, the Torah states, “you shall sacrifice (vehikravtem),” but in reference to Rosh HaShanah the command is “you shall make (va’asisem)” (Bamidbar 29:2). Said Hashem, “Having survived My judgment on Rosh HaShanah, it’s as if you’ve been ‘made’ anew.” Likewise, continues the Yerushalmi, korbanos are typically accompanied by a sin offering – but not on Shavuos. Said Hashem: “Having accepted the Torah, it’s as if you’ve never sinned in your lives.”

So the Torah itself alludes to the fact that Shavuos is a day of judgment, just like Rosh HaShanah. By accepting the Torah anew each year on Shavuos, we merit atonement for our sins, just as we’re acquitted on Rosh HaShanah through repentance.

Sequel or Prequel?

Like repentance, accepting the Torah means making a commitment to live as Hashem intends us to. Shavuos marks our original commitment, and Rosh HaShanah, its annual renewal. So although Rosh HaShanah comes first in the calendar, Shavuos precedes it thematically. And although the world was created first, then recreated through our acceptance of the Torah, the Torah itself preceded the world. As Chazal tell us, Hashem looked into the Torah and then created the world based on this blueprint (Bereishis Rabbah 1:2). To quote Lecha Dodi, “Sof ma’aseh bemachshavah techilah – last in deed, first in thought.”

On Rosh HaShanah Hashem looked into the Torah and created the world. On Shavuos we look into the Torah and sustain the world (Rabbi Avi Fertig, Bridging the Gap).

New Fruit

According to the Matnas Chaim, the “fruit” judged on Shavuos is none other than our souls, which sprout from the “tree of Hashem.” As we’ve learned, those souls are reborn by reaccepting the Torah. Perhaps this is one reason Shavuos is known as chag habikkurim, the festival of first fruits!

May we all be judged favorably, and may our efforts to serve Hashem – on Shavuos and all year – bear fruit.

Question for Discussion

Shavuos marks a new year in our relationship to the Torah. What’s one “new year’s resolution” you can make to improve your Torah study and/or observance?



Shavuos #2/ Three Holidays, Three Ways of Serving Hashem

“Three times a year, every one of your males shall appear before Hashem, your G-d, in the place He will choose: on the festival of Matzos, the festival of Shavuos, and the festival of Sukkos…” (Devarim 16:16).

Pesach, Shavuos, and Sukkos are known as the shalosh regalim, the three pilgrimage festivals, during which every Jew is to journey to the Beis HaMikdash to recharge his spiritual batteries. Though these special times occur once a year, each teaches us how to serve Hashem every day.

Paraphrasing the Sefas Emes (5634, s.v. gimmel regalim), the Sifsei Da’as explains that these three holidays correspond to three ways of worshipping Hashem.

The Jewish people developed its national character in three stages:

(1) Birth of a Nation

The Jewish people was formed through its exodus from Egypt.

Egypt’s Hebrew name is Mitzrayim, as in metzarim, straits. The Jews were indeed in dire straits in that land, awash as it was in dark desires. Surrounded by such decadence, our ancestors sank to the forty-ninth level of impurity. Had Hashem not “passed over” their lowly state, they would never have been redeemed, Heaven forbid.

But redeemed they were, not just from enslavement to the Egyptians but from subjugation to the evil inclination. On Pesach we gained the strength to harness this yetzer, and our impulse control defined us as a nation.

(2) Receiving the Torah

Then Bnei Yisrael received the holy Torah – their very soul. This precious gift both inspired and enabled them to cleave to Hashem. Whereas the redemption from Egypt liberated the body, that first Shavuos redeemed the soul, transforming it into a receptacle of Hashem’s word.

(3) The Wilderness

After the sin of the spies, the Jews had to spend some forty years in the desert. In this barren, harsh environment, they had to trust in Hashem alone to provide. Men, women, and children journeyed to an unsown land with nothing of their own to sustain them. On Sukkos, we too leave the security of our homes and mark our freedom from physical needs.

“With All Your Heart, Soul, and Might”

These three holidays and modes of worshipping Hashem parallel the commandment to love Hashem “with all your heart, soul, and might” (Devarim 6:5), as we say in the Shema.

Chazal (Berachos 54a) expound that “‘You shall love Hashem, your G-d, with all your heart’ – with both your inclinations [good and bad].” Pesach liberated us to do just that, to use even the yetzer hara for holiness.

Serving Hashem “with all your soul” alludes to the boundless Divine soul granted to us on Shavuos -- a soul designed to plumb the depths of the Torah we received that day.

And “with all your might” means no longer needing or relying on money or other possessions, as Sukkos teaches us.

Only when one is free in all three of these respects can he truly serve his Creator. And the attainment of that level of service, like the three pilgrimage festivals, is something to celebrate!

Topic for Discussion

Tell us about someone you know whose worship of Hashem has particularly impressed you.

Mirel from Chicago, learning in seminary in Yerushalayim:

Our dorm mother is responsible for approximately fifty of us girls learning in Israel for the year. She and her husband have four small children, but she comes every night from 9 to 1 am (!), just to be around and deal with any issues, which definitely come up. And whenever we need to reach her during the day, she’s fully available. She’s a real eved Hashem, always there for us and kindly taking care of all our needs.

Lewis, living in Jerusalem’s Nachlaot district:

I work for a caterer who had a tremendous number of orders from people coming to Israel for the holidays. For weeks before Sukkos, we were working nonstop, preparing orders, running out to buy ingredients, etc. I didn’t have time to put up my sukkah, so I called my friend Devin, learning in Ohr Somayach. He was delighted to build me a sukkah. He did all the work, and with a smile. He’s a true eved Hashem. So I want to thank him, since he’s also here at the meal.