Parashat Hashavua – The Weekly Portion – Bemidbar

JCT student Tzvi Silver on this week’s parasha


Tzvi Silver, a student in his second year of studies towards a degree in Electronics Engineering at JCT’s Lev Campus, on this week’s parasha

The following D’var Torah was inspired by my chavruta in Torat Eretz Yisrael, Ari Gordon.

Vince Lombardi, a former owner of the Green Bay Packers and well-known name to those who frequent the New Jersey Turnpike, is famously quoted as saying “Individual commitment to a group effort- that is what makes a team work, a company work, a society work, a civilization work.” Former UK Prime Minister Winston Churchill spoke along the same lines, saying “Continuous effort- not strength or intelligence- is the key to unlocking our potential.” While none of the aforementioned have a particularly close connection to Judaism (though Churchill did help establish the Jewish State with his 1922 White Paper), their messages are very much in line with our faith’s philosophy on life.  In a world which judges purely on results, the Jewish People stand out as a nation whose religious observance is not about the results, but the journey. Mesechet Avot teaches “it is not for you to finish the work, nor are you free to desist from it,” showing that our life-long mission is to continuously invest effort into Avodat Hashem. However, Lombardi and Churchill take this philosophy to a societal level- if we, as a nation, want to ensure our future, we must put in a collective effort to make a future. How do we do this, you may ask. I believe we need to look no further than our parsha, where Am Yisrael is counted as a whole in preparation to enter Eretz Yisrael, to see an important lesson in individual and communal efforts.

In our parsha, Moshe Rabeinu is faced with a daunting task. He is commanded by G-d to take a census of the Jewish People, those aged twenty years and older, for army service, a huge undertaking. Moshe collects the half-shekel coins of all of those countedand presents his tally. Then, Moshe is given an even more complex assignment:

וַיְדַבֵּר יְקֹוָק אֶל מֹשֶׁה בְּמִדְבַּר סִינַי לֵאמֹר. פְּקֹד אֶת בְּנֵי לֵוִי לְבֵית אֲבֹתָם לְמִשְׁפְּחֹתָם כָּל זָכָר מִבֶּן חֹדֶשׁ וָמַעְלָה תִּפְקְדֵם.

And Hashem spoke to Moshe in the Wilderness of Sinai saying: Count all of the descendants of Levi by their families, every male from one month and up shall be counted. (במדבר ג:יד-טו)

Moshe is told to count all of the male Levites, aged one month and up, a particularly difficult assignment since infants of that age aren’t usually able to give in a half-shekel coin for the census. Nonetheless, Moshe once again comes through:

וַיִּפְקֹד אֹתָם מֹשֶׁה עַל פִּי יְקֹוָק כַּאֲשֶׁר צֻוָּה

And Moshe counted them, by the word of G-d, as he was commanded. (שם טז)

As my sixth-grade English teacher has told me on all-too-many occasions; “Something doesn’t need to be here…” Why do we need to be explicitely told that Moshe’s count was both “על פי ה’,” and also “כאשר צוה.”

Rashi answers by connecting the words “על פי ה'” to the difficulty of Moshe’s task:

על פי ה – אמר משה לפני הקב”ה היאך אני נכנס לבתי כלם ולתוך אהליהם לדעת מנין יונקיהם. אמר לו הקב”ה עשה אתה את שלך ואני אעשה את שלי. הלך משה ועמד על פתח האהל והשכינה מקדמת לפניו, ובת קול יוצאת מן האהל ואומרת כך וכך תינוקות יש באהל זה, לכך נאמר על פי ה’:

On The Word of Hashem- Moshe said before G-d: How can I enter everyone’s homes and tents to know exactly how many infants there are? G-d responded to him: Do your (effort), and I will do mine. Moshe went and stopped in the entrances to the tents with G-d’s presence following him, and a divine voice would call out from the tent and say “there are X babies in this tent,” and this is why [the passuk] says “על פי ה’.” (רש”י שם)

This Midrashic teaching shows us a clear message: the importance of השתדלות, of making an effort. When faced with daunting, seemingly impossible tasks, we can take one of two routes; we can admit defeat, noting that nothing can possibly be done to reach our goal. However, Rashi’s message here is that even when all hope is lost and something seems beyond our reach, we must give it our best effort- why? Because, if our intentions are pure, G-d will help us out. “עשה אתה שלך ואני אעשה את שלי- Put in your best effort, and I, G-d, will do the rest.” It is because of this השתדלות that Moshe was able to complete his count of the thousands of Levites.

The idea of השתדלות has become a bit of a buzz word in the context of the גאולה in recent decades. This seven letter word which seems to have such a simple meaning, has been taken in many different directions to return to the same goal. On Sunday, the Lubavitch chasidim of Jerusalem put on several Lag B’omer parades throughout the city. Their message was clear; in order to bring the Mashiach, השתדלות must be focused on small, doable mitzvot on a global scale. Along with the “יחי אדונינו” flags, flyers were given out emphasizing the importance of the mitzvot of lighting Shabbat candles, putting up mezuzot, and wearing tefilin every day. The claim of the rabbis leading the group on Ben Yehuda street on Sunday afternoon was that if every Jew can keep a few basic commandments and focus their השתדלות on these, then the Mashiach will return… (cough)… come. On the other extreme, the less chasidic Hareidi world has a different spin on השתדלות. They believe that our השתדלות should be focused on personal introspection. If we can work on repenting for our sins and perfecting ourselves, then surely G-d will do the rest.

While these are both extremely valid and important goals for each and every one of us, when it comes to bringing the Mashiach, I believe that it is clear from our parsha that the השתדלות (with a capital “ה”) to bring the geulah is through actions, by doing the ultimate השתדלות of leaving everything behind and coming to the Promised Land, embracing the geulah even if sacrifices are required. I would like to present a section from Rav Yissachar Teichtel’s Em Habanim Semecha, an essential work in the arsenal of all Religious Zionists, which expands on this idea of השתדלות.

In the second chapter of Em Habanim Semecha, Rav Teichtel discusses the process of earning and executing the redemption, one step at a time. Step seven intially discusses the importance of relying on only G-d to bring the Mashiach, then continues to the theme of השתדלות. Rav Teichtel writes:

ואחר היגיעה, האיר ה’ את עיני למצוא פשר בדבר זה, על אריכות הגלות אף שכבר הגיעה זמנה של “בעתה.” דהנה, הושע הנביא אומר: “אחר ישובו בני ישראל ובקשו את ה’ אלקיהם ואת דוד מלכם ופחדו אל ה’ ואל טובו באחרית הימים.” ואמרו חז”ל על פסוק זה: “לא גלו ישראל אלא משום שמאסו בני ישראל בשלושה דברים: במלכות שמים, ובמלכות דוד, ובבית המקדש…

…And after [I thought about this,] G-d opened my eyes to find reconciliation in this matter, on the lengthening of the exile even though the time for redemption has already come. This is what Hoshea wrote: “Afterwards, the Children of Israel will return and ask from G-d, and for David their king, and they will fear G-d and all of his good, at the end of days.” And Chazal say on this passuk: “The Jewish People were exiled because they hated three things: G-d’s Kingship, Davidic kingship, and the Temple… (אם הבנים שמחה פרק שני, אות ז)

Further on, Rav Teichtel clarifies what exactly “בקשה” means here:

היינו דתפילה בלא עסק ועסק בלא תפילה, לא מהני.

For prayer without action, and action without prayer, is incomplete. (שם)

The message is crystal clear here. We were exiled from our land thousands of years ago for three major sins. Right now (read: in the time of Rav Teichtel, about seventy years ago), we are nearing אחרית הימים. But reaching the time of Mashiach is not enough. We must learn from the lessons of Vince Lombardi and Prime Minister Churchill, and take action, put in effort, to enable our civilization and nation to continue. As the different sects of Religious Judaism debate how to go about this, only one result has shown any serious progress; the השתדלות of returning home, for as Hoshea prophesied, only  “אחר ישובו בני ישראל- after the Jewish People return,” can they “ובקשו…- beg for redemption.”  Even though the prospect of putting in such serious השתדלות and מסירות נפש can be extremely daunting, we only need to look at Moshe Rabeinu’s attitude in the parsha to realize that if we put in our השתדלות, then G-d will help. All we need to do is take the first step, reaffirm our “individual commitment to group effort” as Lombardi said by doing serious השתדלות, and come home. With this in mind, may we all merit to reach a fulfillment of Hoshea’s prophecy by meriting the coming of theMashiach and the End of Days, very soon.

Shabbat Shalom.