Our parsha begins with the census of Bnei Yisrael—with Hashem “counting” Bnei Yisrael. Hashem counting Bnei Yisrael is an expression of His endearment for us (see first Rashi in our parsha), which, ultimately, could show us the inherent value, importance and unique purpose of every Jew. From this idea of Hashem counting us, we could derive two fundamental ideas that, really, may go very much hand-in-hand: The significance of understanding our own esteem and unique mission, as well as understanding that in others.
The Torah’s mention of Hashem’s counting of Bnei Yisrael is an extremely rare occurrence. Why is this rare moment specifically here in parshat Bamidbar? Furthermore, parshat Bamidbar is read before Shavuot—the holiday of the giving and receiving the Torah—why?
At first glance, one might say that this census doesn’t seem so important. One could think there are surely many more important things to do, and therefore, finding shortcuts to hasten the process is definitely preferred. Interestingly however, it seems like just the opposite occurred: The pasuk stresses that the counting of the census should be done “according to their head count” (1:18). What does this mean?
The Ramban in our parsha (1:45) quotes an explanation that, “Hashem was telling Moshe to count the people in a manner that accords honor and greatness to each and every one of them, and he should not count them by asking the heads of each family, ‘How many (men) are in your family? How many sons do you have?’” Rather, all the people should pass before him, and with awe and respect he should count them.” (Hence, the words, “(according to their) head count,” could be emphasizing the personal nature of the count).
We could derive from the Ramban that not only would it have been improper to quicken the counting, but even more so, the counting was supposed to be done methodically—with reverence—and affording great esteem to each and every person on a personal level.
Rav Henach Leibowitz asks: Did Moshe not have better and more important things to do than personally greet and inquire over 600,000 people? How did he have the time for that? Moshe was the gadol hador, who carried an exceptionally weighty and crucial role of teaching the Torah to the people! Should he have neglected this to spend so much time greeting and honoring the people? Says Rav Leibowitz, we learn from here that Hashem felt this act of spending so much time honoring Bnei Yisrael was more important than Moshe’s learning and teaching of Torah to them—despite the fact that Moshe could have learned and taught a tremendous amount of Torah during that time.
Why, though? Rav Leibowitz explains that spending the time to honor Bnei Yisrael would accomplish more than the aforementioned; because by Moshe personally honoring each person, every person would come to recognize their own uniqueness that no one else has, and they would, thus, be driven to fulfill their personal mission in this world (“Chiddushei Halev,” Bamidbar).
We can elaborate somewhat by suggesting—perhaps, slightly differently—that even though much Torah could’ve been gained during that time of counting the people, however, through honoring each person and pumping each person with a healthy dose of self-esteem and confidence, this would enable Bnei Yisrael in the future—in the long run—to accomplish much more in Torah itself than had they simply been taught Torah during that time, instead of being honored by Moshe. Moshe may have given up Torah, but it may have been an investment for much more Torah to be learned and implemented in the future.
Thus, we could again, perhaps, see the Torah placing utmost importance on recognizing the esteem and unique purpose of every Jew. And hence, it would emerge that self-esteem—understanding our value and individual purpose—as well being aware of that in others, is essential for our and other people’s success and can spur great achievements in Torah study and mitzvot.
Based on this, we can suggest that the fact that the very beginning of parshat Bamidbar deals with the exceptionally rare episode of the counting of Bnei Yisrael, and the fact that Shavuot—the holiday of receiving the Torah—is right after parshat Bamidbar, can, perhaps, come to teach that knowing our own esteem, and understanding we have a unique purpose, is a gateway to be able to adequately receive, grow and maximize our potential in Torah study and mitzvot.
The days of Omer mark the time of the passing of Rabbi Akiva’s students who died because they didn’t treat each other with honor (see Gemara Yevamot 62b). The question is: How could such great people not have given each other honor? It is, perhaps, possible to say that—on some level—it was because they, themselves, did not fully appreciate and value their own self-worth and unique purpose in this world. Naturally, that could affect one to view the other in a similar light and, as a result, not accord the proper respect to them. The fact that 24,000 massive Torah scholars died—thus, resulting in a huge loss of Torah—can, perhaps, show that seeing the uniqueness and greatness in ourselves and others is essential for maintaining, growing and achieving greatness in Torah and avodat Hashem.
Binyamin is a graduate of Yeshivas Rabbeinu Yitzchok Elchanan, and of Wurzweiler School of Social Work.