Rabbi Benjamin Yudin
Rabbi Benjamin Yudin

A Healthy Tension before Mattan Torah

The parasha of Bamidbar is read annually before the yom tov ofShavu'ot. In Shulchan Aruch O"C 428, we find minu ve-ratzu which means count and celebrate Shavu'ot. The Torah teaches that the mandate to count Benai Yisrael is couched in the phrase "Se'u et rosh" which means literally "lift the head" or "elevate" the nation of Israel. How is counting an elevation? The Ramban in his commentary (4:13) explains that counting each individual is acknowledging that each person has self-worth, importance, and dignity. You are not only important because you are part of the nation of Israel, but you have your own purpose and mission as well.

It is interesting to note that each person's EKG is different one from another, and no two people have the same fingerprints. Our Rabbis couch this idea as "Kesheim she-ein partzufeihen shavin kach ein dei'oteihem shavin." By this they mean that each person is unique not only physically, but in intelligence and character as well. Because each person possesses a unique temperament, his spiritual challenges and his yetzer ha-ra are also relevant only to him. Therefore, each person's service of God is different from everyone else's.

While the book of Bamidbar begins with the important message of the worth of each man individually, each person is counted as part of Benei Yisrael. This dual nature might well be compared to a symphony orchestra. The ultimate beautiful end result is the integration and blending of each instrument. However, unless each musician fine-tunes his or her instrument, and practices to perfection, the sum which is even greater than all its individual parts will be lacking. "Minu ve-ratzu" might therefore require that we develop our own individuality to be able to join the collective kabbalat ha-Torah of Shavu'ot. Moreover, this directive of "minu ve-ratzu" - really thrusts a major philosophic difficulty on thinking Jews. On the one hand we have stressed our own individual avodat Hashem. On the other hand, the greatness of kaballat ha-Torah is "ke-ish echad be-leiv echad," joining with the rest of the Jewish nation. How is one to budget his time and energies between their own needs for growth and those of others? The Maharsha in his commentary (Sanhedrin 99b) suggests that "adam le-amel yulad" (People are born to work,") le-amel is an acronym for "Lilmod al menat le-lamed" - to study and master in order to share and teach to others. What scale should we use to determine how to balance our personal studying, which as we know never ends, and our communal responsibility, which likewise seems never ending?

Rav Shimon Shkop zt"l in his introduction to Sha'arei Yosher writes that just as in the physical/ material realm we are commanded "Asser te-aaser" (Devarim 14:22), to tithe our possessions on behalf of the Levites, and the poor (depending on the year) and are promised that doing so will bring us blessing, so too regarding the realm of the soul - we are to give a tenth of our time to helping others. (Giving to others is the best way to insure one's wealth). Moreover, the more we give, the more we are promised God will bless us.

Similarly, the Meshech Chachmah in his commentary on "Va-yachel Noach ish ha-adamah" ("Noach debased himself as a man of the earth" - Bereishit 9:20) cites the midrash which contrasts the Torah's depiction of Noach, first as " a righteous man" and subsequently as a "man of the earth," with its description of Moshe Rabbeinu, who is initially referred to as "an Egyptian man" but who ultimately becomes a "man of God." He explains that there are two different ways to serve God. One is to isolate oneself from the community and focus completely on oneself. The other way is to be involved in and with the needs of the community. Logic dictates, reasons Rav Meir Simchah ha-Cohen of Devinsk, that the former will excel to develop himself and his true potential, while the latter, involved with the needs of others, will not be able to attain that level of greatness and maturity. The reality, points out the midrash is just the reverse. Through our helping others, we ultimately help ourselves the most. May we all be zocheh to reach out and spiritually touch not only those around us, but ultimately ourselves, ensuring our successful personal and communal kabbalat ha-Torah.

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