Raise Your Head High

Se’u es rosh kol adas Bnei Yisrael (Bamidbar 1:2)

There is a mystical idea that the content of the parashah read each Shabbos is connected to the events of the upcoming week. It is interesting to note that Parashas Bamidbar is usually read on the Shabbos preceding Shavuos. What possible connection could there be between a parashah that deals primarily with counting the tribes and the festival on which the Jewish nation received the Torah?

Harav Moshe Feinstein explains that as Jews around the world excitedly gear up to personally reaccept the Torah and reaffirm their commitment to its study, the evil inclination attempts to derail them. It argues that their Torah study is so limited in quantity and quality that it is insignificant and even, G-d forbid, a waste of time.

The yetzer hara shows a person that his more intellectually gifted friends are able to learn more hours and more pages and to retain their knowledge better than he could ever hope to do. As Jews get excited for the universal custom of staying up all night on Shavuos engrossed in Torah study, a person may be tempted to opt for a good night’s sleep after realizing that the most he could accomplish in an entire night could be learned on an even higher level by the Rav in a mere 10 minutes.

To counter this flawed argument, the Torah precedes the holiday of Shavuos with the reading of Parashas Bamidbar. The parashah begins with Hashem’s command to conduct a census of the Jewish people, but it is written using a peculiar expression. Instead of instructing Moshe to “go count the people,” the words used translate literally as “pick up the heads of the Jews.” Why did Hashem use this awkward expression when commanding Moshe about the census?

Rav Moshe explains that just as a contemporary Jew could get discouraged in his service of Hashem when comparing it to others, certainly one in the wilderness, who lived in the shadows of Moshe and Aharon, could be susceptible to the same fallacy. He may feel that although he is “worth” one, those around him are “worth” 100, leaving him despondent. Hashem used this peculiar expression because when every Jew realizes that in the census he is counted as the same one as every other Jew, he will recognize how valuable his efforts are in Hashem’s eyes.

This understanding will allow him to “pick up his head” and hold it high with a newfound self-confidence.

Although others may seem light-years ahead of us in the quantity and quality of their mitzvos, the lesson of Parashas Bamidbar is that everybody is judged separately in Hashem’s eyes, based on a personalized benchmark of what he is capable of doing. A person who overcomes his own struggles to maximize his individual potential should certainly enter Shavuos prepared to accept the Torah with his head held high.

Q: The Torah records that the population of each tribe was a multiple of 100, with the exception of Gad, whose population was a multiple of 50 (1:25). Was it really possible that every tribe had such a precisely even number of Jews, or did the Torah round the census to the nearest 50 or 100?

A: The Shaarei Aharon quotes the Imrei Noam, who maintains that the Torah isn’t particular about small numbers, and suggests that the census for each tribe was rounded to the nearest 100. Since the tribe of Gad had precisely 50 extra people, their count couldn’t be rounded either way. As proof that the Torah rounds numbers, the Imrei Noam cites the commandment to count 50 days of the Omer even though we count only 49, and the verse ordering 40 lashes to be given to certain transgressors even though we give only 39.

This is also the position of the Meshech Chochmah. However, Harav Chaim Kanievsky relates that he initially assumed that the census numbers were rounded, but when he mentioned this to his father, the Steipler responded that a number written in the Torah must be exact, and Hashem must have had a reason why He miraculously caused each tribe to have such even numbers of people.


Originally from Kansas City, Rabbi Ozer Alport graduated from Harvard, learned in Mir Yerushalayim for five years, and now lives in Brooklyn, where he learns in Yeshivas Beis Yosef, is the author of the recently-published sefer Parsha Potpourri, and gives weekly shiurim. To send comments to the author or to receive his Divrei Torah weekly, please email oalport@Hamodia.com.