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Parshat Bamidbar (5762)
This week's section contains no commandments; it deals mostly with the results of G-d's request to Moses to count the Jews that left Egypt.
At first glance this is not understood. Certainly G-d knew how many Jews there were. What was the purpose of Moshe counting them? Why didn't G-d just reveal to him all the figures and save a lot of time?
Even more, what do we care how many Jews were in each tribe over 3,300 years ago? Why was this so important to be part of G-d's Torah?
Here is a story to help us understand.
The Jews were really in trouble, big trouble. The Rabbi of the town was away, outside of Poland, and no one knew what to do.
It seems that an apostate Jew called Father Steffen had convinced the local Baron that his Jewish serfs were really the blasphemous messengers of the Devil. Now the Jews had five days to find someone to debate this troublemaker or be evicted from the kingdom with only the clothes on their backs.
For the Jews, such public contests were like walking a tightrope over fire. One wrong word against the Gospels would be interpreted as apostasy, so it was as dangerous to win as it was to lose.
Their only chance was to prove that Judaism, although a valid religion for the Jews, is no threat to the Church. And only their Rabbi had the experience and wisdom to do that.
They sent urgent letters to him but no one really believed that he would even receive them in time, much less show up for the debate. They had no choice but to pray, fast and wait for a miracle.
Needless to say the Synagogue was packed every day, the Jews were saying Psalms (T'hillim) weeping and pouring their hearts out to G-d, but four days had already passed and things looked very bad. Suddenly one of the congregants stood up, pounded several times on the table, and yelled out "I'll go! I'll talk to that priest!"
Everyone stopped reading and looked up but when they saw who was talking they just went back to their Psalms and shook their heads in pity. It was poor Yitzchak the water carrier, the biggest simpleton in town. He barely knew how to read. "Yizchak, just keep praying." someone said sadly.
"NO NO!" he insisted. "I decided! I'm going. I'll argue against that Priest. And I'll win too!"
The seriousness of his voice made people look up again and before anyone could say anything he continued. "If I lose, just say that I'm crazy. In any case you have no one else. At least it will buy you some time till the Rabbi returns."
He spoke quickly and bumbled his words, but one thing he said made sense; they really had no other choice.
The next morning Yitzchak presented himself at the castle and that afternoon proclamations were hung in the town; the debate would take place tomorrow in the Baron's royal court.
The huge hall was arranged like a courtroom. In the front sat the Baron on a royal throne, before him the two contestants, and facing them several hundred seats. Only ten Jews, who were seated at the back, were allowed to attend. The rest of the seats were filled with the Baron's friends. They were pampered and bored and needed some unique entertainment. And this was exactly what they were looking for.
Yitzchak, sitting in his seat, looked decidedly out of place in his old clothes (albeit the best he had) amidst the crowd of fancily dressed royalty, but he did not look the least bit nervous. He read calmly from his book of Psalms occasionally looking up at the Baron, and waited for the contest to begin.
Suddenly the Baron cleared his throat and the crowd fell silent.
"We are gathered today at the request of Father Steffen", motioning graciously to the priest. "The Father claims that the Jews are really blasphemous devils and that their books, especially their Talmud, belittle our faith; very severe charges indeed."
The Baron paused waiting for his words to sink in. "If they are true, this Jew will be killed and his stubborn brothers will either accept our faith or be expelled from our kingdom…. immediately."
"And what if they are not true, your majesty?" Yitzchak's quiet voice interrupted.
The crowd broke into a buzz. A smirk passed over the face of the Baron as he turned to the Jew and again cleared his throat. "We shall see. We shall certainly see." He turned and smiled at the Priest. "I can only promise justice."
Yitzchak stood and bowing slightly said, "Your majesty, may I speak?" The Baron nodded slightly. "Because this Steffen is the challenger I think it's fair that I ask first." The Baron again nodded in consent and announced,
"Father Steffen, please stand and we will begin!"
The Priest stood and contemptuously scanned his puny opponent from head to toe thinking to himself, "This ridiculous fool is an obvious ignoramus and bluffer. Just look how he's dressed! Stupidity is written all over his face!" but his thoughts were interrupted.
"Your majesty" the water carrier continued, "I want to show you that this man standing before us who calls himself a priest is really an ignoramus and a bluffer! A stupid troublemaker interested only in disturbing our…. that is your majesty's, peaceful kingdom. As we will soon see he does not even know the simple meaning of the most basic of Biblical passages!"
The priest was seething with rage. But Yitzchak turned to him looked at him calmly and asked in a loud clear voice.
"What is the meaning of the passage spoken by Jacob after seeing his vision of the ladder, "Anochi Lo Yadati"
The priest immediately answered sharply. "I did not know".
"I said, 'Anochi Lo Yadati'" Shouted Yitzchak taking one step closer and cupping his hand to his ear as though he hadn't heard the answer.
"And I answered; "I did not know", you fool!'" Yelled the priest.
"ANOCHI LO YADATI!!" Screamed Yitzchak, his nose only an inch from that of his adversary.
"I DID NOT KNOW!! YOU STUPID DEAF PIG!!" Screamed Steffen. "I DID NOT KNOW!!"
"You see! Your highness" Yitzchak turned to the Baron. "He admits he doesn't know!"
The Baron, who had no idea what was going on, jumped to his feet, livid with anger and screamed.
"Get him out of here! Off with his head!" and in an instant poor Steffen was dragged out of the room, yelling and protesting, to his bitter end.
When the noise died down the Baron turned to Yitzchak apologized for suspecting the Jews and promised to treat them more kindly in the future. Yitzchak in turn bowed graciously, thanked the Baron profusely and was escorted royally from the palace by Jews and gentiles alike.
When he arrived back home the rejoicing was unlimited. Every Jewish male packed into the synagogue amidst music and dancing and the wine flowed like water while the women danced and sang outside.
Finally Yitzchak was lifted onto a table, the crowd became silent and he timidly mumbled a few words of thanks to G-d.
But then someone yelled out from the crowd. "Hey Rab Yitzchak, where did you get the brilliant idea to pull such a trick?"
Someone else joined in: "How were you so sure it would work?"
And inevitably someone commented, "I don't think he's as simple as he makes out."
The room suddenly fell silent, "Ahh!" Yizchak answered "You are right! It was really some miracle! A great miracle! Thank G-d!! Thank G-d!! And I'll tell you how it happened.
"You see, when everyone was praying a few days ago I felt really bad. I wanted to do something. I mean, everyone else was saying T'hillim and I can hardly read. Anyway, for some reason I pulled this book of Genesis from the shelf, you know the one with the Yiddish translation, and opened it and suddenly something caught my eye. I saw there in the Yiddish the words: "Ich Hot nisht ge'vust" Which means 'I didn't know'. So I looked up to the text to see what words it was referring to, and there was that sentence from Yaakov and the ladder.
"Wow!" I thought to myself, "if this genius that translated the entire Torah into Yiddish says that HE doesn't know the meaning of this sentence....then FOR SURE that devil Steffen doesn't know it." So that's why I was so sure!!"
That is why G-d wanted Moshe to count the Jewish people and why the numbers were so important.
True the Jews are called G-d's chosen people and even the sons of G-d, but all this is spiritual and potential, and has no effect on the physical world.
In order to bring this potential into actuality, G-d told Moses, G-d's SERVANT (Deut. 34:5) to count the Jewish people and prepare them to be servants.
When Moses, the Shepard of the Jewish people, whose purpose was to strengthen the Jews (like a shepherd feeds his flock), counted them it strengthened their potential and brought it into the world.
And this was a preparation to the receiving of the Torah.
The purpose of the Torah was (and is) not just to assure the Jews of a heavenly reward but most importantly, to make them into SERVANTS (see Exodus 3:12) and do the work G-d created the world for (See Gen. 2:15).
Namely, to transform the physical world into a 'dwelling for G-d' sort of like a huge Holy Temple, revealing the ONEness of G-d. (as will be finally revealed by the Moshiach, see the end of Rambam's Mishna Torah)
But the first step was to be counted; every Jew became another "one", with the ability to reveal "G-d is One" in the world.
And that is where our hero the water carrier, the simplest of the simple of Jews, got his courage and ability to transform the evil decree to a blessing. And that is why that counting that Moses did back then is important to each of us today.
G-d willing, through following the directions of the Moses of our generation, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, may we soon see the transformation of the world to a holy, peaceful Heaven on earth, revealing the ONEness of G-d with the arrival of....
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