This page presents insights by Rabbi Tuvia Bolton on the weekly Torah portion.
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Parshat Bamidbar (5771)
This week we begin 'Bamidbar'; the fourth book of the Chumash (Five Books of Moses).
The word "Bamidbar" means "In the desert." A desert is an unfriendly and desolate place so, at first glance this is not a positive name.
Also this week's portion begins with G-d ordering Moses to count the Jews after they left Egypt [which is why it is often called "Pikudim" ("Numbers")]. Which is not so understood; G-d is omniscient, why did He tell Moses' to count when He certainly already knew the number?
As we have said many times; the Torah is a book of life and every paragraph, sentence, word and even letter in it has practical importance. So here there must some REALLY important message in an entire book for all of us.
To understand this here is a strange story (Ko Asu Chachmenu vol. 3, pg. 210)
Many years ago in a port town far from Israel lived a wealthy and influential Jew. He had been born to a poor family and his childhood was spent in poverty. From the age of three years old he had attended Jewish school and learned Torah like all the other Jewish children, but he had a simple mind and never really understood what was written in the books. All he learned were the words of the prayers and not all of them at that.
However, he had a good heart and was as honest and pleasant as a person can be which made him many friends. And he was industrious; he learned to be a butcher, succeeded in business and in no time his name and reputation spread until he somehow found favor in the eyes of the local duke who gave him the right to collect the toll and taxes from all the ships that entered the city harbor.
Our hero, who we will call Yaakov (although his name is not mentioned in the story) despite his wealth never forgot his humble roots and was always on the watch for someone in need. He bought food for the poor, helped the sick, and supported Jew and gentile alike whenever possible - especially Jews.
Once a large, sleek cargo ship entered the docks and after Yaakov routinely boarded and collected the tolls and taxes the ship's captain, a heavyset, mustachioed coarse looking fellow took him aside behind some crates, winked at him and asked in almost a whisper if he wanted to buy something precious.
"What?" Yaakov replied.
"I can't tell you." Answered the captain, "But I guarantee you that you'll like it and won't regret that you bought it."
"I can't buy something before seeing it." Yaakov said. "Tell me what it is and how much you want."
"What it is, I already told you that I won't tell you. How much?" The captain rolled his eyes, tapped the fingers of both hands together, looked at Yaakov and said, "Ten thousand gold pieces!"
Yaakov took a step backward. "Ten thousand!? Why that is a fortune! Who would pay a fortune for a cat in a bag! I want to see what you have to sell or forget it!" Yaakov was already thinking to himself that possibly it was stolen goods, drugs or contraband. But his interest certainly had been aroused.
"No! You can't see it." said the captain. "But I can tell you that if you don't buy it now I'll never sell it to you."
Yaakov became more curious. Impulsively he stuck out his hand to shake hands and said, "Alright! I'll pay. You have my word. Just show me what you have and I'll give you the money, ten thousand gold pieces."
The captain looked Yaakov straight in the eye and arrogantly declared. "I told you I won't show it to you till I have the money here!" as he pointed to his open palm. "Now I won't sell it to you either unless you give me TWENTY thousand!"
Yaakov was shocked but being the seasoned businessman he was he didn't show it. "Good!" he said. "Fine! I'll give you Twenty thousand. But first I want to see what it is.
"Now I won't even sell it you unless you give me FORTY THOUSAND! And I'm not showing you anything!" the Captain almost yelled. "And if you don't pay" …. he moved his face close to Yaakov's and whispered, "Then I'll throw it into the sea."
Yaakov almost turned his back to leave. But something in his heart told him to stay. The captain was doubling the price each time he asked so he dare not ask again. He blurted out,
"Good! I'll pay! I pay the forty thousand."
"First give the money …… BEFORE you see the goods" sneered the captain. "You have an hour….no! A half an hour! But I'm warning you……… if I see you coming with police I'll give the order to throw it in the sea! No evidence and no deal. And you'll never see it."
Yaakov ran home, got the money and in just minutes was back on the ship counting it out to the captain. "Now, bring me what I bought!"
The captain laughed villainously. "Ha Ha HAA. Bring it? Haaaa haaa!!! Just wait here a minute and what you bought will walk here on two legs. Haaaaa Haaaa!"
He descended the steps to the belly of the ship laughing and talking aloud to himself and after a few moments, from the bottom of the stairs came the sound of chains dragging on the ground. It grew louder until through the open door emerged ...... human beings! Bent, emaciated,dragging themselves with expressionless faces, an endless line of them, torn dirty garments hanging from their skeleton-like bodies.
In a few minutes two hundred Jews; men, women and children were standing before him. They had been taken captive by the captain and his pirate crew and Yaakov had saved them.
The captain gave a sign and his men began unlocking the chains, then he turned to Yaakov, winked and said, "Well my friend …… How do you like them? Maybe you regret paying so much? Ehhh? Haa Haaaa! Well you should know that I would have thrown 'em all into the sea! The whole smelly bunch! I couldn't find anyone to buy 'em. They've been there for a month. They just took up room and I couldn't stand the sight of 'em anymore.."
Yaakov took them off the ship, brought them to his home where he gave orders to take care of them and then ran to the duke's castle to try to get the pirates arrested. But when the duke's men arrived at the docks the pirates had already set sail and escaped into the open sea.
Yaakov provided the captives with all their needs including doctors to nurse them all back to health and gradually he heard their sad story. It seems that the captain and his pirates attacked their village, burned it to the ground killed all the elders and children and kidnapped anyone they figured they could sell as slaves. For weeks they were in the dark, stuffy belly of the ship with no light or air and only water and stale bread to keep them alive.
After several months Yaakov got to know all of them and even find them jobs and homes. One of them, a modest 18 year old girl, exceptionally G-d fearing, intelligent, pleasant looking and kind, impressed him as being a perfect match for his oldest son.
When he spoke to her about it she blushed with gratitude and humbly tried to decline saying how could a penniless nobody like her possibly be a match for such a respectable person as his own son. But Yaakov understood that she was flattered by the offer. He smiled, gave her a beautiful necklace to show that he was serious and after a few meetings with his son she accepted the offer and the joyous preparations began.
Two months later the wedding hall was decorated, guests came pouring in from near and far, rich and poor, gentile and Jew. The duke and his family were given a special place of honor as were the two hundred captives who had completely recovered from their ordeal. Everyone wanted to be part of this 'rags to riches' story and the mood of the entire crowd was elated.
Yaakov was all smiles as he moved among the guests welcoming and joking with them but he noticed that one of the guests, a young man, one of the redeemed prisoners, only smiled when he saw that Yaakov was looking at him. But if not he almost looked sad.
Yaakov figured it must have been because he was thinking about his family and friends that had been killed by the pirates or perhaps he was awed by the great changes. So he went over to him and asked if everything was all right. The young man looked at him, his eyes filled with tears and he began weeping so that he couldn't even answer.
Yaakov waited till he calmed down and asked again if there was anything he could do for him but the young fellow just dried his eyes, apologized and said that everything was all right. But Yaakov felt that he was hiding something. And after several minutes of prodding and questioning he found out what it was.
"In the village where we lived before the pirates came, the bride and I had agreed that after we saved up enough money we would be married. But then the pirates came and it all changed.
"But that's all in the past. It's the way G-d wanted it. Now we both owe our lives to you. If it wasn't for you we would all be dead. And your son is such a fine person and I see that she likes him. I'm sure they will be happily married. So please don't pay attention to my tears, they are also tears of happiness."
Yaakov thought for a moment and then decided to test the young man; he offered him a fortune if he would be willing to look for another bride. "After all you were both young and your decision to marry wasn't really based on much. With this money you would be set for life."
But the young man answered. "If given the choice I would not trade her for all the money in the world, but now I'm so grateful to you that I'm happy that she is marrying your son! I gladly relinquish her for free."
Yaakov went to his son, explained the entire story and his son declared that he was not in any way willing to cancel the wedding for any reason! Rather the occasion must go on exactly as planned…..but with a different groom.
At the festivities Yaakov stood and said that this was the happiest moment in his life. Not only because he saw that the all sacrifices that he had made bore fruit but even more; because he saw that his son was also willing to give up everything for the sake of others.
This answers our questions. The world is like a desert; desolate of meaning and void of blessing. The scientists' philosophers' and psychologists' after the most thorough examinations have revealed that all creation, including man, is a nothing more than a cold bundle of meaningless causes and effects.
And the various religions of the world agree! The best they can offer is the afterworld.
But Judaism teaches differently: The moment that G-d gave the Torah on Mount Sinai …. this physical world became more meaningful and blessed than even the highest heavens.
Because Only in this world…. EACH AND EVERY ONE of us can actually give G_d pleasure by learning His Torah and fulfilling its commandments. This is what Judaism teaches.
And this is the reason G-d wanted Moses to COUNT the Jews: To bring this potential hidden in each of us into PHYSICAL reality. Everyone is important and no one is alone!
You, dear reader, have been counted by Moses! And YOU 'count'; i.e. are important, in your Creator's eyes.
This is the Torah's message for us here today. We should never give up on making this world a better place; even a LITTLE light dispels a LOT of darkness and confusion and each of us was given the power to do it.
Just as in our story, Yaakov and his son dispelled much tragedy and misery through their actions and replaced it with joy and blessing. So too EACH of us has the same power: even one good deed, word or even thought can transform the world from a desert and bring heaven on earth with ….
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