Reporting the results of a census should be a straightforward affair, you
would think. Not much room for drama. The Torah, though, offers us
unending delights and surprises, and does not disappoint us even here. The
difference between Hashem’s directive to take the count in our parshah
differs strikingly from its counterpart a short distance from here in
parshas Pinchas. In our parshah, the command ends with the
phrase “by number of the names.” In the census reported later, the
command comes to a screeching halt with what is here the penultimate
phrase: “according to their father’s house.” What is insufficient about
the later phraseology that needs further amplification here? And if
the “number of the names” language is important, why delete it later on?
Accentuating individual names, suggests the Sforno, stresses the
importance of the individual. (We know from considerable experience that
names in Chumash are highly descriptive, distilling the unique essence of
the named object.) The earlier of the two censuses of Bamidbar, the one in
our parshah, counted people who had left Egypt in the great
Exodus. These were elevated people, those many commentators refer to
as “the generation of understanding.” By the time we get to parshas
Pinchas, the baton has been passed to a new group. The generation poised
to enter the land of Israel was of lesser accomplishment and stature.
They possessed great qualities born of their “families” and “father’s
houses,” but individual greatness was not so widely distributed.
The Sforno’s approach stands our perspective on the two generations on its
head. The foibles and failings of the earlier generation are chronicled
and detailed for us by the Torah. Regarding the latter generation, we
hear no complaints. The navi pithily sums up their spiritual
output in a single line that evokes our envy: “Yisrael served Hashem all
the days of Yehoshua.”2 We are forced
to conclude that the more frequent indiscretions of the earlier generation
flowed from its greatness, not from its weakness! Because those who left
Egypt lived on a more elevated plane, their yetzer hora was that
much greater3 as well. They were met
with more numerous and more difficult challenges; their relatively
infrequent but dramatic failures make up much of Chumash Bamidbar.
It was the second generation, the lesser of the two that succeeded at
entering the land. In one regard, occupying a position of lesser stature
has its advantages. Both Chida and the Shalah HaKodesh argue that
the word Canaan and hachna’ah (submission) are related. In other
words, the holiness of the Land has little tolerance for those who cannot
or will not completely subjugate themselves to its exacting demands.
(Toras Avos notes the parallel language in “tovah ha-aretz me’od
me’od,”/ the land is exceedingly good, and the epigram in Pirkei Avos,
“me’od meod hevei shefal ruach” / exceedingly be of humble spirit.
The overlap suggests that the land is exceedingly well suited to those who
are of exceedingly humble spirit.) The generation that accepted the evil
report of the spies was told by Hashem that they would be barred from
entering the land. Their progeny, whose safety they had sought to
protect, the “little ones” – they would enter the land. This is a double-
entendre; it alludes to the fact that the next generation would be “little
ones,” not as great as their predecessors. Precisely because of this, they
would be able to inherit Israel. The greatness of the first generation
made it particularly hard for it to banish all ego needs and subjugate
itself entirely to the land. The relative simplicity of the generation
that followed allowed it to make the absolute commitment to the land;
hence it was better positioned to take possession of it. (Bais
Avrohom explained a passage in the Zohar4 in a similar fashion, finding significance in
simplicity where others would overlook it. The Zohar says, “One who is
great, is small; one who is small is great.” Bais Avrohom
interprets this as referring in the first case to people who actually are
great, and in the second to those who are in fact small. A person who is
conscious of his greatness becomes smaller because of that consciousness.
One who is small and realizes it, possesses an element of greatness! He
fits the description in Tehilim5 “a
heart broken and humbled, O G-d, You will not despise.”)
We could suggest an entirely different approach to answer the difficulty
that results from the Sforno’s depiction of the generation that entered
the Land as spiritually less significant that the one that left Egypt.
Having at one point been mired in the spiritual morass of Egypt, the
primary path in avodah of this generation was in purifying
themselves of the tumah that surrounded them. Put more simply,
they practiced sur mera – resisting and turning away from evil.
The next generation’s task was the other half of the matched set: aseh
tov – actively performing good works. They were charged with entering
the land, making it theirs, and building the Beis Hamikdosh.
These two different paths of avodah require two very different mind
sets. As Beis Avrohom writes elsewhere, the sur mera model
requires vigorous self-confidence. Yosef HaTzadik – the finest example of
resisting evil – ably demonstrates this. At the most dramatic point in
his confrontation with Potiphar’s wife, she “grabbed him bevidgo,
by his garment.”6 The same letters
(with altered vowelization) yield bebegido, in his rebellion. Yosef
could be grabbed, was most vulnerable, by calling attention to his prior
failures and misdemeanors. “Do you think you are perfect? You have
rebelled against Hashem often enough through your failings! With such a
record, how harmful do you think one more sin is going to be?”
Yosef’s response blazes a trail for the rest of us. “There is no one
greater in this house than I.”7 The
yetzer hora often tells us that we are of little importance. We
can despair of greatness; we don’t have what it really takes. Another sin
is a small thing, given our general worthlessness. We can resist such a
yetzer hora only by asserting our value and our worth. We gird
ourselves with ga’avah dekedushah, with holy pride.8 We must animate ourselves with the spirit of “his
heart was elevated in the ways of Hashem.”9 We must assume the posture of a chasid and
yirei Hashem, to whom such lowliness would be unthinkable.
The generation of the wilderness battled the battles of sur mera.
To weather the counterattack of the yetzer hora, they needed to
feel this holy pride. They had to cherish appropriate feelings of self-
importance, not reject them. The Torah takes note of this by underscoring
their individual importance in counting them “by number of the names.”
The next generation did an about-face, and preoccupied itself with the
production of good deeds. Borrowing from the gemara,10 the more a person bends himself in submission and
humility, the better. The path to positive avodah begins by muting
one’s sense of worth and importance.
Or as the Magid of Mezerich put it, “From the ground, you can’t fall.”
1 Based on Nesivos Shalom pgs. 8-10 2 Yehoshua 24:31 3 Sukkah 52A 4 Zohar 1:122B 5 Tehilim 51:19 6 Bereishis 39:12 7 Bereishis 39:9. Note that in the text, Yosef’s position is
voiced several verses before Potiphar’s wife makes her final seduction
attempt. 8 This concept figures importantly in the writings of both Rav
Kook zt”l and his talmid Rav Hutner zt”l. 9 Divrei Hayamim 2 17:6 10 Rosh Hashanah 26B