- God spoke to Moshe in the wilderness of Sinai … saying: “Take the sum of all the congregation of the Children of Israel, by their families … (Bamidbar 26:3)
Whenever I got to this parshah and recall what Rashi says about God’s counting of the Jewish people as a sign of endearment, my mind skips over to a counting of a different type. I always seem to see, in my mind’s eye, the identification numbers tattooed on the arms of the Jewish people during the Holocaust, and I feel a coldness instead.
It is the most bizarre thing. I would have thought that any nation bent on exterminating a people would have avoided keeping meticulous records of the people they were destroying. Just think of all the money and manpower the Nazi’s, y”s, had to invest just to number each Jew they captured and to keep a file on him or her. Millions of files!
Why? Who goes to all that trouble and expense? To make sure that no one escapes? The allies had the same concern about their prisoners of war, but they didn’t number them. To recall just how many Jews they murdered? A head count would have sufficed. There really wasn’t a good reason, logically-speaking, not that Hitler, ysv”z, was very logical, at least morally.
The real answer to the question is that Heaven made him do it. The question is why? What was the message?
The basic rule is that every negative historical event regarding the Jewish people is the flip side of some positive event that did not come to fruition. Nothing can happen in Creation if there is not some energy in the world to make it possible. And usually, it is an energy that can be used for good or evil, depending upon who gets to it first. So, when something evil happens in Creation, especially to the Jewish people, it has to be asked: What good could this have brought about had it been used properly?
Which brings us back to the fanatical numbering of the Jews during the Holocaust. If the Germans numbered the Jews for torture and death, then it must have been a time when the Jewish people could have been numbered for something positive. The question is, why would God have numbered the Jewish people at that time at all?
To answer that question, we need only to learn Rashi on this week’s parshah:
- Because they are precious before Him, He counts them all the time. When they went out of Egypt He counted them (Shemos, 12:37), when they fell because of [the sin of] the golden calf He counted them to know the number of those who remained, and when He came to cause His Presence to rest upon them He counted them … (Rashi, Bamidbar 1:1)
From what Rashi explains, it seems that God counted the Jewish people at every major turning point, good or bad, in Jewish history at that time. Indeed, the counting itself seems to signify that something major had happened, or was happening, at that time in history. And certainly, in retrospect, the Holocaust had been no different.
What I am saying, as controversial as it may seem, is that there was an energy in the world at that time as Hitler, ysv”z, was rising to power, to count the Jewish people. Otherwise, he would not have had the idea to do it, or the resources to carry it out so accurately. He used it for evil only because we failed to use it for good.
That means that some time around the late 1930s and the early 1940s, Jewish history was meant to change, for the good, and in a major way. The question is, what was supposed to have happened that didn’t, or at least got pushed off, or came about through the negative instead of the positive?
The answer is even more controversial: the founding of the modern State of Israel.
That is because the event, and its history since then, has been so confusing. The religious Zionists want to believe that the miraculous founding of the new state at that time was nothing short of the Final Redemption, or close to it. The Orthodox world downplays all of that and barely acknowledges the significance of the historical moment, with some even going so far as to claim that the founding of the State is an act of the Satan, not of God, to cause Jews to stumble, not to help them survive.
If that is confusing, the secular Zionists cannot even decide if they want the State to exist, at least as a Jewish one. Going back to the first World Zionist Conference in Basel, Switzerland, in 1897, the secular Zionists pushed for a state that was not connected to the Jewish past, one that has more like Europe than anything else. The modern secular Israeli is so disconnected from his past that he is even prepared to surrender land he once fought to keep, in the name of peace that does not and is unlikely to exist before Moshiach arrives.
Regardless, in 1948, love it or hate it, the Jewish State was born, against all odds, and the recommendation of the United States State Department (until this very day). Fortunately (read: miraculously), though, the sitting President at that time, Harry S. Truman, was a Bible-carrying man, one who was well-versed in Torah enough to believe that the return of the Jewish people to their boundaries after 2,000 years of exile was nothing short of the fulfillment of Biblical prophecy, with which he was only too happy to comply.
But this was not an event that just jumped out of the word work. Rather, it was the culmination of an ingathering that had its roots in the first, very small wave of aliyah that began as early as the 1700s. It was at that time, at the command of their beloved rebbi, the Gaon of Vilna, that the students of the GR”A made their way to the barren land of Eretz Yisroel to begin what the GR”A called the ‘Beginning of the Redemption.’
Being the Torah giant and Kabbalist that he was, the Gaon had his calculations and reasons for trying to rebuild the yishuv of Eretz Yisroel exactly at that time. Even he was on his way to Eretz HaKodesh, and only turned back because something happened to indicate that for him, the time was not right. So, he encouraged his students to go instead, and they did.
The going was quite tough and dangerous in the beginning, but a beginning it was, until waves of aliyah began to support and expand what had already been established. Needless to say, there were no Arabs living there at the time, the land being as barren and economically unfeasible as it seemed to be. One had to be quite idealistic to make the move and persevere until better conditions prevailed.
Which they did not, for many years to come. But Jews continued to come, in fulfillment of the prophecy that Jews would indeed one day return to their land. And, this continued through the 1800s, regardless of the politics in and around the land of Avraham, Yitzchak, and Ya’akov. Right under the noses of the Arab world, the ancient land off to the east of the Mediterranean Sea was once again becoming Eretz Yisroel.
Hence, by the time Ben Gurion declared statehood in 1948, it was already a de facto reality thanks to Divine Providence. And the incredible success of the State, some 63 years later, has only been possible because of the same Divine Providence, no matter what people say and who takes credit for it. And, the biggest miracle of all is that, in spite of the backwards thinking of some Israeli politicians, there is still a country in which the Knesset can exist to express that backwards thinking!
To make a long story short, although perhaps not less confusing, the 1930s and the 1940s were a threshold between the previous period of history, and the one that came after. People can deny the validity of the declaration, but they cannot deny that Jewish history turned a crucial corner at that time. A massive negative energy emerged and was used against the Jewish people only because a massive positive energy was put into the world and left largely untapped by the Jewish nation.
So, instead of being ingathered from the four corners of Europe to Eretz Yisroel, we were ingathered to Concentration Camps. Instead of being numbered so that we could transition peacefully to the next great stage of Jewish history, we were numbered for destruction. And, instead of achieving equality and unity amongst ourselves for the sake of redemption, it was imposed upon us from outside, and all that made us unique from one group was taken away from us until we all looked the same. We were even forced to literally live on top of one another.
This is not an issue of finger pointing or second guessing previous generations with hindsight. This is a matter of taking stock of what has happened in the past, learning from what has clearly gone wrong, and trying to see if the lessons can be applied in a positive way in the future. It is a matter of using rules of Jewish history, some known, some forgotten, and seeing how they played out in historical events.
Eventually, everything will fall into place as it should. God’s master plan, without doubt, will prevail. So many forces in Creation have tried to stop the Jewish people from fulfilling their ultimate destiny, but they will, and have been now for thousands of years. The prophecies of redemption will be realized and probably sooner than later. Of that we can be sure.
What is uncertain is how much evil will happen along the way. How much death and destruction will occur between now and the time the Final Redemption will arrive? How many of us will still be around to witness and celebrate the end of all darkness forever? That is the variable of history that can only be answered by taking advantage of the spiritually fortuitous events that Heaven throws our way to allow us to play a role in the Final Redemption, before they are taken by the evil people of history and used against us.
Let the next one to number us be God, and may it be because we have survived history, and only to show us how much He truly cherishes us.
Copyright © by Rabbi Pinchas Winston and Project Genesis, Inc.
Rabbi Winston has authored many books on Jewish philosophy (Hashkofa). If you enjoy Rabbi Winston’s Perceptions on the Parsha, you may enjoy his books. Visit Rabbi Winston’s online book store for more details! www.thirtysix.org