by Rabbi Yisrael Kaniel – May 13, 2010

The Torah section of Bamidbar begins (1:1-4): “And G-d spoke to Moses…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…you shall count them…you and Aaron.  And with you shall be one man from each tribe, a man who is a leader of this father’s household.”  Following this is a declaration of the leaders of each shevet (tribe) and a detailed counting of each and every shevet followed by the total sum of all the shvatim (tribes) together.  However, “The levites according to their fathers’ tribe were not counted among them” (Bamidbar 1:47).  We then finish off the first chapter by reading about the function of the levites, levi’im, after which, in the second chapter, we are delineated how each and every one of the different shvatim were situated when encamped and when traveling, as well as the order of their traveling and the fact that they had flags.  The narration then returns in the third and fourth chapters to describing the levi’im and their function, among whom we read of the kohanim (priests) and their function, and are given a further description of their positioning and a counting.

What, one may ask, is so important about all these details?  Why must we know exactly how many there were in each shevet and, once we know that, what is the need to tell us the sum of everyone together, which we could figure out ourselves?  Then, what difference does it make to mention how all the shvatim were positioned?  Then we need to know what function each group of kohanim had, a matter – seemingly – of just historical fact?  And why shift back and forth between descriptions of the different groups, when we could have just had a description of everything – counting, function and leadership – for each each group and not have to go back to that group?

By counting every individual shevet, the Torah emphasizes the importance of each one.  Each one is appreciated in its own right to each and every last member, as is represented by the exact counting (see Rashi, Bamidbar 1:1).  But once each shevet is counted, we do not simply take for granted the total sum.  The sum of all the shvatim is expressly pointed out.  Each individual shevet is important down to each individual member of that shevet, but we are not to lose sight of the entire people as a whole and the entire community is not to be taken for granted.  The group as a whole needs mention.  The individual is important and the group as a whole is important, each in its own way.  Going back to mention the sum total of people of Israel after mentioning each and every shevet brings that to the fore.

Making a point of mentioning the positioning and functions of the different groups – the different shvatim, the levi’im and the kohanim – emphasizes that indeed every one has a certain position in life established for him by none other than G-d Himself.  Our position is not ad hoc.  We are to appreciate our position and be content with it, making the best of that position, as we are to be content with the function meted out to us.  So many of us feel that “the grass is greener on the other side”.  If we have a respectable position in life, it often annoys us that someone else has a better position or higher function or nicer home.  Even an especially nice looking flag can be a source of envy.  G-d set some shvatim to be in more respectable positions and some in somewhat less.  G-d set the levi’im to have a higher function and the kohanim among them even higher.  The positions and functions are “not up for grabs”.  Everyone cannot decide for himself where he wants to stand and what he wants to do.  There is a need for order and responsibility within the community at large, and there is a need for content and appreciation for one’s lot and that of the other.  “Do not covet” (Sh’mot 20:14) the Torah tells us, and our sages say “Who is wealthy, one who is happy with his lot” (Mishna Avot 4:1).  Of course, we want to push ourselves to be better and better – and we should – but not at the other’s expense.  There is a limit.  Everyone cannot have everything.  G-d gave each of the groups making up our nation a different position or function and all were to accept it and be content with it.

And the Torah went back and forth between the groups, rather than just finish off with each group by telling us everything about that group and then going on to the next.  To just finish off with each could not be done for the same reason that everyone was counted.  Every group was important and each needed to be discussed, but, despite each group’s individual position or function in the community, we could not “just finish off” with each one.  Once we started to mention one, we would be reminded of the other who is also just as important and then we would be reminded of the other and so on and so on.  And even if we spoke of the levi’im or the kohanim, we could not forget about the other groups, after which we would then be reminded again of one while speaking of the other.  We cannot “just finish off” with any one in particular.  Describing one reminds of another, for all are to be important in our minds.

In fact, the aforementioned would dovetail with and explain something that seems to be mentioned briefly and in passing, as it were, but warrants noting.  All this counting and positioning, we are told at the very beginning of their description was done with the help of none other than Aaron, Moses’ brother, the Kohen Gadol (High Priest).  It was not enough for Moses, the Head of State, so to speak, to take care of this census.  Aaron had to be involved.  Aaron, whom we are told by our Sages (Mishna Avot 1:12) was a “lover of peace and pursuer of peace” – loving all mankind – had to take part in this counting and positioning.  This emphasized the role that all this had in stressing the need for harmony in the community.  We need to consider what we have and build on that, rather than harp on what the other has.  Only this way can we have the necessary harmony to all grow together as one group and each of us as individuals.

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