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Parshat Bamidbar: Privilege and Responsibility

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May 14, 2010

Rav Eliyahu Dessler, author of the classic Michtav Me'Eliyahu, recalled that once, when he was a boy, he was playing around and accidentally broke a glass dish. When his mother found out about what had happened she was furious and punished the young boy.

A couple of weeks later a chicken got loose in the Dessler house and broke another glass dish. R. Dessler describes his shock at watching his mother calmly pick up the broken pieces of glass and then - without a word - put the chicken back into its cage. What happened to the anger? Where was the screaming? Confused, young Eliyahu reached a perfectly logical conclusion: It's better to be a chicken than a little boy.

Eventually, however, he gave it some more thought and even as a child realized the error of his initial calculation. After all, he could eat at the table and get real food while the chicken was always dirty and got fed dry corn and other undesirable foods. R. Dessler thus concluded that, in fact, it was better to be a little boy.

Parshas Bamidbar begins with the command to take a census of the Jewish people: "Se'u es rosh kol adas Benei Yisroel," take a census of the entire assembly of the Children of Israel, "le'mishpechosam le'beis avosam," according to their families, according to their fathers' house, "be'mispar shemos, kol zachar le'gilgelosam," by number of the names, every male according to their headcount (1:2).

The Midrash (Bamidbar Rabbah 1:11; see also the Ramban) takes note of the peculiar phrase used to describe counting the people, "se'u es rosh," which literally means "lift up the heads." The Midrash explains that the Torah employs this phraseology because it is suggestive of the possibilities open to the Jewish people at this crucial juncture in their history. On the one hand "im yizku ya'alu li'gedulah," if we are worthy there is a possibility of greatness, as indicated by the similar word used when Yosef interprets the butler's dream: "yisa Pharaoh es roshecha va'hashivcha al ka'necha," Pharaoh will "lift up your head" and restore you to your rightful place (Bereishis 40:13). On the other hand, "im lo yizku. yamusu kulam," if you are unworthy there is the possibility of calamitous failure, as alluded to by the word used in Yosef's subsequent interpretation of the baker's dream, "yisa Pharaoh es roshcha me'alecha," Pharoh will "lift your head" from upon you and hang you from a tree.

The larger message of the Midrash is that the Jewish people have a special opportunity for greatness - "im yizku ya'alu li'gedulah" - but along with that opportunity comes great responsibility. If we fail to live up to our potential then the result is not just a lack of accomplishment, but complete catastrophe, "im lo yizku yamusu kulam."

There is a proportional relationship between opportunity and responsibility. When the demands are greater so is the reward. The little boy may be held to a higher standard than the chicken but he also receives greater reward for that added responsibility.

Rav Chaim Friedlander (Sifsei Chayim) suggests that it is this very dynamic which underlies one of the most well known kinos, elegies, recited on the morning of Tisha B'Av.

Kinah #31 contrasts the exuberant experience of leaving Egypt - be'tzeisi mi'Mitzrayim - with the disheartening departure from Jerusalem at the time of the destruction of the Beis Ha-Mikdash - be'tzeisi mi'Yerushalayim. At first glance it appears that the theme of this kinah is to dramatically convey just how far we had fallen at the time of the churban.

R. Friedlander suggest that the ultimate purpose of this contrast isn't historical or emotional but rather, philosophical. The kinah is highlighting the fact that our special relationship with Hashem necessitates that we will either experience great success or miserable failure. As the Am Ha-Nivchar, the "Chosen People," we have great responsibilities and high expectations. If we live up to our calling then our reward will commensurate, but if we fall short of expectations then our punishment will be significant.

Jewish history is full of numerous examples of both sides of this coin. Our special relationship with Hashem has given us great opportunities but great responsibilities as well. What was true in the desert - "im yizku ya'alu li'gedulah ... im lo yizku yamusu kulam" - has remained a reliable predictor of Jewish life ever since. Let us hope that we can live to our responsibilities and thereby merit Hashem's manifold blessings.


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