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Shabbat Parashat Bamidbar| 5770

Parashat Hashavuah: By their Families and the Household of their Fathers

Harav Shaul Yisraeli z.t.l. (Siach Shaul pp. 362-3)

“Count the heads of all of the congregation of Bnei Yisrael, by their families and the household of their fathers by the number of names … all who go out to the army” (Bamidbar 1:2-3). An army usually cares that its soldiers have strong bodies. In contrast, the Torah is interested in something very different, the number of names – not anonymous numbers but people who are known by who they are and also, specifically, by their family and forebears.

Judaism is built primarily on the tradition from the fathers (see Kuzari 1:25). “Ask your father and he will tell you” (Devarim 32:7). The mitzva to honor parents is a special mitzva that is a foundation for all of Judaism. By respecting our parents, we strengthen the knowledge that we are not beginning from scratch, but rather that we have a chain of inheritance. We inherit philosophies and characteristics even when we do not recognize that this has happened. The Rambam (Igeret Teiman) writes that when the Torah says about Moshe, “and even in you they will believe forever,” this indicates that at the revelation at Sinai, Israel received a permanent feeling of belief. This goes so far that whoever does not have such a feeling can be suspected of not being a descendant of those who stood before Sinai.

On one hand, there is a need for “number of names,” that each person has his own independent value. On the other hand, he is still identified according to his family. Everyone has to add his own contribution, but he does so as a continuation of his predecessors. This is the idea of “each man by his encampment and each man by his flag” (Bamidbar 1:52). It is important to encourage family traditions: joint singing of zemirot around the Shabbat table, special tunes for seder night, etc. These old things are important, like inserting new things, especially those that can catch on and last.

Along with the spirit of renewal, an irreverence for that which is a relic of the past has developed. This haughtiness brings on a trivialization of a tradition of life that was developed over many generations and an erasure of history. People do not bother to learn the inner strengths that pushed the nation to survive over generations.

When Bilam saw Bnei Yisrael, he said: “From the tops of mountains I saw them” (Bamidbar 23:9), which refers to the patriarchs and matriarchs (Rashi, ad loc.). Chazal tell us that the Divine Presence dwells in Israel only when there are families whose lineage is clear (Kiddushin 70b). Some people want to give us “new Torahs,” but they need to know what the Rambam taught us, that our Torah will not be switched. Rather, we should “look at the Torah every day as if it were new” (Rashi, Devarim 26:16). Several modern forms of idol worship have already passed from the world: worship of utopian societies, worship of the State. All of the non-Torah utopias are slowly disappearing. Only that which continues from the past on to the future is steady.    

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