This week’s portion begins Sefer Bamidbar, telling the story of the major events that occurred during the forty year trek though the Midbar towards the land of Israel. In secular terms the book is called Numbers, probably because of the first command in this third Book of the Pentateuch, “count the Jewish people,” thus the name Numbers.
The Hebrew words for count are either s’ooh , which also means lift up, and p’kod, which can also mean appoint. Thus, when the Torah commands, “s’ooh es rosh kol adas Yisrael, count the heads all the assembly of Israel (Numbers 1:2), it is telling Moshe to uplift them as well.
It was not merely a matter of numbers, explains Rebbe Rav Shmuel of Sochatchov: counting the nation was not only a means of enumerating them, but also of appointing a special dignity to each and every one who was counted. Every individual was important, there were no communal estimates, and the appointment actually lifted them.
But one of the tribes was not counted with the rest. Regarding the tribe of Levi, which was designated as the spiritual leader of the Jewish people, Moshe was told, “But you shall not count (p’kod) the tribe of Levi; and their heads you shall not lift (v’es rosham lo sisah) among the Children of Israel” (Numbers 1:49).
The questions are simple. Why is there a double expression prohibiting a count “do not count and do not lift their heads”? In addition, why does the Torah add the words, “amongst the children of Israel”? True, they were counted separately, and so the Torah should rather state, “And the tribe of Levi shall be enumerated separately.” Can there be a deeper intonation with the expression, “Do not lift their head amongst the Children of Israel”?
Rav Eliyahu Chaim Meisels, the Rav of Lodz, would raise money for the poor widows and orphans of his city. During one particularly freezing winter, he went to visit one of the prominent members of his community, Reb Isaac, a banker who served as the president of the community council.
Bundled in a coat and scarf, the Rabbi approached the banker’s mansion and knocked on the door.
The valet who answered the door was shocked to see the great Rabbi Meisels standing outside in the bitter cold. He immediately asked him to enter the home where he said there would be a hot tea waiting.
Rabbi Meisels refused. “It is not necessary. Please tell Reb Isaac to see me by the door.”
The banker heard that the Rav was waiting near the portal and rushed in his evening jacket to greet him. Upon seeing the Rabbi standing in the frigid weather, he exclaimed. “Rebbe, please step inside. I have the fireplace raging, and my butler will prepare a hot tea for you! There is no need for you to wait outside!”
“That’s alright,” countered Reb Eliyahu Chaim. “It won’t be long, and all I need could be accomplished by talking right here. I’m sure you won’t mind. Anyway, why should I dirty your home with my snow-covered boots?”
By this time, Reb Isaac was in a dilemma. The frigid air was blowing into his house. He did not want to close the door and talk outside in the cold, and yet the Rabbi did not want to enter!
“Please, Rabbi, I don’t know about you, but I am freezing,” cried the banker. “I don’t mind if your boots are wet! Just come on in!”
But the Rabbi did not budge, He began talking about the plight of some the unfortunate members of the community as the bankers teeth chattered in response.
“Please, Rebbe, just tell me what you need! I’ll give anything you want, just come inside!”
With that, Reb Elya Chaim relented. He entered the man’s home and followed him to the den, where a blazing fire heated the room. Then he began: “I need firewood for 50 families this winter.” The banker smiled. “No problem, I commit to supplying the wood. Just one question. You know I give tzedoka, so why did you make me stand outside?”
“Reb Isaac,” smiled Reb Eliyahu Chaim. “I know you give, but I wanted to make sure you understood what these poor people are going through. I knew that five minutes in the freezing cold would give you a different perspective than my initial asking while basking in the warmth of your fireplace.”
The Chasam Sofer explains that because Levi was a special tribe of teachers and leaders it could be possible they would be aloof. Thus, though they were counted separately, they could not be above the crowd. Therefore, the Torah’s command was stated in clear terms, “their heads you shall not lift (v’es rosham lo sisah) among the Children of Israel”. Leadership may put you in a class by yourself, but remember, says the Torah, you must not feel that you are above the folk. You cannot bask in warmth while you are oblivious to those who suffer in the cold. Your head can not be “lifted” from among the children of Israel.
Dedicated by Aleeza & Avi Lauer and Family, in memory of Avi’s father, Rabbi Elias Lauer – Harav Eliezer Ben Aharon Dovid, A”H, on the occasion of his yartzeit, 26th day of Iyar, and in memory of Avi’s grandfather, Aaron Lauer – Ahron Dovid Ben Eliezer, A”H, on the occasion of his yartzeit, 28th day of Iyar.
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Copyright © 1998 by Rabbi M. Kamenetzky and Project Genesis, Inc.
The author is the Dean of theYeshiva of South Shore.