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The Census Takers
by Rabbi Heschel Greenberg

This week’s parsha, BaMidbar, discusses the census of the Jewish people in the desert that was taken by Moses, Aaron and the leader (nasi) of each of the twelve tribes. Why was it necessary for Moses to have others with him in fulfilling his task? If three people were enough—despite the enormity of the task—then one or two could have sufficed as well.

In truth, the counting of the Jewish nation in the desert was not an ordinary census. Counting them was intended to bring out their hidden talents. Being in a desert—literally and figuratively—requires special energy to enable us to cope with its hostile environment. The desert that the Jews traversed is described in the Torah as “great and fearful.” This description also aptly describes the horrible physical and spiritual conditions of life in exile.

The three census takers represent three forms of positive energy that were needed during our forefathers’ treacherous sojourn in the desert. And these three forms of energy are especially relevant to our generation, as we stand on the threshold of the final Redemption.

According to the great Kabbalist, the Ari, our generation—the one the Rebbe has repeatedly designated as the “last generation of exile and the first of Redemption”—is a reincarnation of the generation of the desert. It follows, then, that the details of the census of the Jews in the desert has a direct and powerful message to our generation in particular.

The Midrash, commenting on this week’s parsha, discusses the three salient characteristics associated with the giving of Torah.

“The Torah was given with [or in] three items: water, fire and in the desert.”

It may be suggested that these three components of Torah correspond to the three census takers. Moses, the Torah tells us, was “brought out of the water.” For that reason, Pharaoh’s daughter named him Moshe. And just as water flows downward, so did Moses bring us G-d’s wisdom from on high, down to our world. And just as water symbolizes humility—for it flows down to lower places—so too was Moses the most humble person on the face of the earth.

Aaron lit the menorah. Aaron is associated with love, passion and fire. Aaron succeeded in inspiring us to rise to higher places, as fire flickers upwards.

The desert, as the Midrash observes, belongs to no one. It is hefker, free for all. This implies that nobody can claim that the Torah belongs to one group of Jews or another. This reflects the contribution of the individual tribal leaders, who connect their constituents as individuals with the Torah. Without these tribal leaders, the Jew might feel a connection to Torah as part of a large impersonal and amorphous conglomeration, rather than as an individual. The “desert” component of Torah underscores the relationship that every Jew has, as an individual, with the totality of Torah.

Moshiach, as the ultimate leader, who will liberate us from all aspects of exile, embodies all three qualities of Moses, Aaron and the tribal leaders. Moshiach must be steeped in the Torah and indeed possesses the soul of Moses. Moshiach must also be the one to inspire the Jewish people and gather them together with feelings of love and unity; the role of Aaron. And finally, Moshiach must also know how to cultivate the individual talents of every Jew and cherish his or her individual contribution. And, indeed, Moshiach’s greatest contribution is that he gets us to achieve all of these qualities.



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