Note: Readers in Eretz Yisroel, who are a parsha ahead, can access a shiur from a prior year by using the archives at https://torah.org/series/ravfrand/ .
There is a commonly-quoted Gemara (Pesachim 68b) that says: “Every year on the day of Shavuos, Rav Yosef would say to his servants, ‘Prepare for me a third-born calf.’ Rav Yosef explained the reason for this lavish celebration as follows: ‘If this day had not caused me to learn Torah and thereby become spiritually elevated, how many ‘Yosefs’ are there in the market place—and I would have been indistinguishable from them!'”
The simple reading of this passage is that the Amora Rav Yosef is commenting that if not for Matan Torah and his personal Torah learning, he would be “just another Joe” (and he therefore celebrated the occasion of Shavuos by asking his servants to prepare his favorite dish).
Virtually every year on Shavuos, Rav Ruderman would say that the Gemara means something deeper than that. “How many ‘Yosefs’ are there in the market place” does not mean “I would be just another ‘Joe'”. Rather, it means “there would be so many of me—I myself would be so many different types of people.” In other words, I would be all over the map, I would be so conflicted without the unifying force of Torah. That which gives unity and focus to my life and makes me into a unified person with unwavering direction is the Torah. Without Torah, I would be so many Joes—A Joe Six Pack, a Joe Ravens fan, a Joe this, a Joe that. I would be all over the place.
This, in essence, is what the Yom Tov of Shavuos is all about. It is a time to appreciate what Torah does for us.
On Shavuos we read the Megillah of Rus. Rus is not a Tale of Two Cities, but it is rather a Tale of Two People. Here we have two sisters—the same gene pool, the same upbringing, the same environment—Orpah and Rus. And yet, Rus went in one direction and made a decision which shaped her whole life thereafter. She became the Matriarch of Klal Yisrael, the great-grandmother of Dovid HaMelech. Orpah went on a different path.
What separated Rus and Orpah? Why did Rus choose what she chose and Orpah chose an entirely different path in life? Rav Moshe Schwab, zt”l, said that Orpah viewed the life that Rus was about to choose as involving too much mesiras nefesh (martyrdom and self-sacrifice). She was not willing to make that sacrifice. She felt it would be too hard of a life. She returned to what she perceived would be an easier life. Rus on the other hand was willing to make that which at the time seemed like a difficult choice. In the end, beyond the initial brief period of time, it turned out to not involve mesiras nefesh at all. It was a much more noble life. It was a much more rewarding life, and a life that was so much better in the end.
That is what we need to tell ourselves all the time. A life of Yiddishkeit sometimes seems more difficult, but it is so much more rewarding in the end. Not only in the World to Come, but in This World as well. We have purpose to our lives. Our lives are so much richer than those who do not have Torah. People make this mistake. They think a Torah observant life style is so difficult, involves giving so much up, and forgoing so much fun and so many pleasures.
That is the difference between Rus and Orpah. Orpah thought she was giving so much up. Therefore, she did not make that decision. Rus recognized that she may be engaged in something difficult for the moment, but in the end, it was going to be rewarding.
L’Havdil – look at athletes. Look at the sacrifices they make. I hate to make this comparison, but look at Michael Phelps. He spent more time in a swimming pool than most of us spend in a Beis Medrash. He wound up winning more Gold Medals than anyone in the history of the Olympics. So, in the end he looks back and thinks, “Sure, it was a sacrifice—all those years of training and practice—but it paid off. In the end, it was all worth it!” He is glad that he made that sacrifice. L’Havdil, that is the way we can look at the sacrifice and mesiras nefesh we make for commitment to Torah learning and for living a Torah observant life style.
The same dialog appears in the Hagadah. The Wicked Son asks, “What is this Avodah – for you!”. The Rasha says, “I see what you are doing, but I am not willing to make that sacrifice.” Look at the answer given to the Wicked son in the Torah’s narration of that dialog (Shemos 12:26-27): “And when your children say to you: What does this Avodah (ceremony) mean to you? You shall say, ‘It is the Passover sacrifice to the L-rd who passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt, for He struck the Egyptians, but our homes, He spared…”.
Our answer to him is, “Yes, it is a sacrifice, but look what happened in the end! In the end, we were saved. The first Korban (sacrifice) that Klal Yisrael brought—the Korban Pesach—was the key to our salvation. That became the prototype of all future Korbonos: Yes, it is a “sacrifice” in the beginning, but in the end, “es bateinu hi’tzeel” (our houses were saved). That is the answer to the Rasha.
The Mishna (Avos 6:4) says “This is the way of Torah: Bread with salt you shall consume, and water in measured amounts you shall drink, you shall sleep on the ground, and live a life of pain, and (yet) toil in Torah.” The way to acquire Torah involves deprivation and hardship. It is tough. But the Mishna concludes: “If you do this, ‘Happy are you and it will be good for you.’ (Tehillim 128:2) Happy are you in this world, and it will be good for you in the World to Come.”
Why does the Mishna need to say “If you do this?” The Mishna just mentioned what was involved in acquisition of Torah. Why repeat “If you do this”? The answer is that after hearing the deprivation and hardship involved in acquiring Torah, it would be quite easy to dismiss the effort – “Who needs that?” The Mishna continues – Yes, I know it sounds tough, but IF YOU DO THIS… Just try it! If you try it, do you know what the result will be? Happy are you, and it will be good for you!
Everything in life that involves sacrifice is worth the hard work. If there is no hard work, it is not worth it. That is also the way it is with Torah. IF YOU DO THIS, if you just try it, you will find out that it will make you happy in This World, and it will be good for you in the World to Come.
This is what Rav Yosef is saying. Where would I be and where would we all be without the Torah? This is the approach that we need to think about before Shavuos. Yes, it is sometimes hard to be a Jew. Yes, it is a life which involves some sacrifice, but look at the end. Look at that first Korban that Klal Yisrael brought. Es Bateinu Hi’tzil—as a result of that, we were saved. That is the sacrifice that, in the end, is the source of our salvation.
A Peculiar Verb Is Used to Command the Census Taking
Sefer Bamidbar begins with the counting of Klal Yisrael: “Take a census of the entire assembly of the Children of Israel according to their families, according to their fathers’ household, by number of the names, every male according to their head count.” (Bamidbar 1:2) Indeed, this is how the sefer begins, and then again, all the way at the end of Sefer Bamidbar – in Parshas Pinchas – it ends the description of the forty-year sojourn in the Midbar with another counting of Klal Yisrael. In Talmudic literature, Sefer Bamidbar is referred to as “Chomesh haPekudim” (the Chumash of the Counts). Even in non-Jewish nomenclature, this fourth book of the Torah is called the Book of Numbers, because it begins and ends with these counts.
Rashi here quotes the famous teaching of Chazal: “Because of their dearness to Him, He counts them constantly. When they left Mitzraim, He counted them; after the Eigel Hazahav, He counted them to learn how many were lost; and when He had his Divine Presence descend upon them, He counted them: The Mishkan was erected on the first of Nissan, and therefore He counted them on the first of Iyar.”
The constant counting demonstrates that the Holy One Blessed be He loves Klal Yisrael. On the other hand, we see something that, at first glance, would seem contradictory: There is a tremendous danger involved in the counting of the Jewish people. We see this all the way back in Parshas Ki Sisa. The pasuk there says: “When you take a census of the Children of Israel according to their numbers, every man shall give Hashem atonement for his soul when counting them, so that there will not be a plague among them when counting them.” (Shemos 30:12). Counting Klal Yisrael introduces the risk of triggering a plague. In fact, in the days of Dovid HaMelech, when Dovid HaMelech counted the Jewish people, there was a tremendous plague. Seventy thousand people from Klal Yisrael died (Shmuel II 24:15).
So, which is it? Is counting something we should do because it shows our endearment to the Ribono shel Olam, and because it demonstrates His love for us? Or is counting something that runs a terrible risk of plague?
The answer is – it depends how the count is conducted. The key to how to count is found in the second pasuk in this week’s parsha. “Se’u es rosh kol adas Bnei Yisrael.” This expression (se’u es rosh) is a very peculiar way of expressing counting. There are numerous ways in Hebrew to verbalize counting. Options include Sefor (samech fay reish); Menei (mem nun hay); and many other ways to say ‘Count’. The most peculiar way to say ‘Count’ is “Se’u es rosh,” which literally means “lift up the heads.” Why then, of all expressions that we might use, does the Torah use the expression “Se’u es rosh“?
The answer is that the expression “Se’u es rosh” is the key to avoiding the downside of counting. The downside of counting is that by counting a mass of people, the importance of each individual can be lost. When someone takes a census and counts 600,000 people, it minimizes the importance and dignity of each individual in that conglomerate. The Torah wants to warn us that we may have 600,000 people, but each one of those people is a person by himself and has a distinct significance, which should never be forgotten.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, ob”m, the former Chief Rabbi of the British Empire, quotes a very famous economic treatise that was written by the Scottish author and journalist, Charles Mackay, in 1841. The name of the treatise was Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. The author documents the great danger that exists in crowds. Aside from the loss of individual identity ever present in crowds, the presence of a crowd generates a “herd mentality.” When everyone starts doing something, everyone in the crowd gets wrapped into it. The example he talks about was the “Tulip mania”.
What was the “Tulip mania”? In Holland, one tulip bulb was worth literally a fortune. People got wrapped up in the exquisiteness of tulips, and it became the greatest thing since sliced bread. Therefore, tulips became the hottest commodity on the market and people would spend fortunes of money for one tulip bulb. This went on until suddenly someone woke up and said, “Hey guys – we are talking about a flower!” Therefore you can go into Trader Joe’s tomorrow morning and buy a dozen tulips for four dollars!
The same thing once happened in South Africa, when people went crazy about ostrich feathers. They became the rage. However, we don’t need to go back into the 1700s or the 1800s. Just think back to the “Tech Bubble” of the 1990s. How do such things happen? They happen because of a “herd mentality” – people get so wrapped up in what everyone else is doing that they lose their own perspectives.
The danger of the masses is a double danger. When we look at a crowd, we do not give proper respect to the individual members of the crowd as individuals. The people become just “numbers”. (There was once even a commercial that stated: “In our bank you are not just a number.”) That is one danger of being part of the masses. The other danger is that people themselves lose their ability to think individually. “Everyone is buying tulips – I am going to buy tulips. Everybody is buying ostrich feathers – I am going to buy ostrich feathers.” That is not the way a Jew needs to operate.
An amazingly insightful Gemara says (Berochos 58a) “Someone who sees the masses of Israel should recite the blessing: ‘Baruch Chacham HaRazim‘”. We invoke praise of the Almighty, who looks at this large mass of people and knows exactly what is within the heart of every single one of them. He knows that every person is different, and every person has his own personality. Every person has his own secrets. Only the Ribono shel Olam knows what those secrets are!
When we see a mass of people, all we see is a mass of people. We get carried away by the crowds and don’t see the individuals. The Almighty sees every individual in that mass of humanity and He knows all their secrets! This is the idea of Se’u Es Rosh – Lift each head and never forget the importance of the head of each individual person.
Transcribed by David Twersky; Jerusalem [email protected]
Technical Assistance by Dovid Hoffman; Baltimore, MD [email protected]
This week’s write-up is adapted from the hashkafa portion of Rabbi Yissochar Frand’s Commuter Chavrusah Series on the weekly Torah portion. A listing of the halachic portions for Parshas Bamidbar is provided below:
- 013 Yerushalayim in Halacha
- 058 Going Up To Yerushalayim for Yom Tov: Does it Apply Today?
- 101 Teaching Torah to Women
- 147 Sefiras HaOmer, Shavuos & the International Dateline
- 194 Can One Charge for Teaching Torah?
- 240 An Early Start for Shavuos?
- 284 Birchas HaTorah
- 330 Sefer Rus and Its Halachic Implications
- 374 Bathing On Shabbos and Yom Tov
- 418 Shavuos Issues–Late Maariv–Learning All Night
- 462 May A Child Carry A Sefer On Shabbos
- 506 Shavuos: Two Days, She’cheyanu & Other Issues
- 550 Opening Cans on Shabbos & Yom Tov
- 594 Omer Davar B’Sheim Omro – Giving Proper Credit
- 638 Eruv and the Big City
- 682 Carrying on Yom Tov
- 726 Returning Pidyon Haben Money
- 770 Let Them Eat Cheesecake
- 814 Oy, The Eruv is Down, Now What?
- 858 Ms. Cohen for A Pidyon Habein?
- 902 Dancing on Yom Tov
- 946 The Beautiful Poem of Akdomus
- 989 The Mitzva of Talmud Torah – How Much – How Little?
- 1033 Conning Someone Out of A Mitzva
- 1077 Can A Father Give Son His Position (Rabbi/Chazan) While Still Alive?
- 1120 The Zohar vs Talmud Bavli: Whom Do We Pasken Like?
- 1162 Yahrtzeit/Yizkor Candles on Yom Tov – Is There A Problem?
- 1206 What Bracha on Cheesecake? Is It BH or BSD? And other Shavuos Issues
- 1250 Erev Shavuos on Shabbos
- 1294 When Should Women Light Candles for Shavuos?
- 1338 Can You Make The Second Day of Shavuos Early? Can American Mohel in Israel Perform A Bris on the Second Day of Shavuos.
- 1382 The Halachic Issues with Milchig Bread
- 1426 Shavuos – A potpourri of Dinim and Minhagim – Adding Water to Flowers and more
- 1470 How is Adopted Child Called to Torah? Named in Kesuba? And other fascinating Shailos.
A complete catalogue can be ordered from the Yad Yechiel Institute, PO Box 511, Owings Mills MD 21117-0511. Call (410) 358-0416 or e-mail [email protected] or visit http://www.yadyechiel.org/ for further information.