Rabbi O’s Weekly Parsha: Bamidbar (Numbers 1:1-4:20)Submission to the Mission

 This is a time of beginnings. The first day of the Hebrew month Sivan was only a few days ago, the festival of Shavuot begins immediately after Shabbat, and in synagogues throughout the world a new book of the Torah is read, the book of Numbers. The first topic mentioned is the counting of people of the generation of the people who left Egypt and were now in the desert. They were counted “according to the number of names” (Numbers 1:2) whereas the next generation, the ones who actually lived to enter the Land of Israel were not mentioned by name, only by family (see Numbers 26). The commentary Sforno (Italy; 1475-1550) observes that counting by names stresses the importance of the individual. The counting in this week’s Parsha of the people who had left Egypt in the great Exodus was done by name to demonstrate that these were elevated people, also known as the Dor HaDeah, “generation of understanding.” The next generation, those who actually entered and conquered the Land of Israel, were of lesser accomplishment and stature. They possessed great qualities originating from their families but individual greatness was not so widely distributed.The Torah details the shortcomings and outright failures of the first generation but omits any imperfections of the second generation. How is it possible that the generation who merited witnessing the Exodus, the splitting of the sea, and so many other miraculous events did not merit admission to the Land of Israel? What did the second generation, the lesser of the two, do to succeed in entering the land?The generation that left Egypt had lived there for so long that they had become stuck in some of the lifestyle and values system of their host country (Egypt). When they left in a miraculous way, they realized that they must cleanse themselves of the false ideologies and idols that had surrounded them for hundreds of years. Their focus was to turn away from the very debasement to which they had become so accustomed. The next generation, saw their work differently-instead of focusing on turning away from evil, they would focus on performing good works. They were charged with entering the land, making it theirs, and building the Temple (Beit Hamikdosh).We learn two crucial but different paths of retaining one’s focus as a Jew from here. One might be on a campus, at an office or social gathering in which the environment is not in concord with his or her Jewish value system. The Biblical story of Joseph is a paradigm for one approach. He was taken as a slave and refused the seduction attempts by the mistress of the house; it would have been contrary to everything he had learned in parents’ (Jacob and Leah’s) home. His refusal wasn’t mere self-control, it also required a self-confident and tenacious mindset. He had made a number of mistakes in life. He had mistreated his brothers as well as giving false reports about them to his father. He had not only been shunned by them, he had been cast into a pit and ended up being sold as a slave. A person in that situation might have a negative inner voice; “I am a failure. My great grandparents (Abraham and Sara) introduced the revolutionary idea of monotheism into the world and lead their lives in an exemplary fashion, as did their children and grandchildren who had been tasked with carrying on their message-but I didn’t. I failed by wronging my family and G-d and now my life is such a mess that I’m a slave, why not just accept her offer? How harmful will can one more small indulgence be?” But that wasn’t the voice Joseph followed. Rather, he said, “There is no one greater in this house than I.” (Genesis 39:9).Our yetzer hara, inner voice urging us settle for the lesser-temporary-pleasure, often tells us that we are of little importance. Why try to make something of our lives when we have failed so often? “I have failed at relationships and/or made really foolish career choices. I should have gone to graduate school or I should have gone to work, graduate school was a waste of time and money.” That inner negative voice has an unlimited array of suggestions to convince a person that (s)he is a loser and another act of poor judgment won’t help or hurt his or her life. (“I’m so overweight, I may as well have another few pieces of cake…I’ve smoked so many cigarettes, one more won’t hurt.”) The only way we can resist that yetzer hara (negative and deceiving inner voice), is to assert our value and worth. We are Jews, descendants of a people who have, in the words of John Adams, “influenced the affairs of Mankind more, and more happily, than any other Nation ancient or modern.” Each one of us has an internal fortitude, the ability even under the worst situations to gird ourselves the way Joseph did under his demanding challenge. It’s called holy pride and it’s in every Jew’s spiritual DNA.The generation of the wilderness battled constant battles of living as Jews in an environment hostile to what they stood and lived for. When they left Egypt, they needed to feel this holy pride and had to invoke feelings of self-importance and the realization that they were worthy of being freed from Egypt-worthy of redemption. The Torah takes note of this by underscoring their individual importance in counting them “by number of the names.” Still, the toughness and single-minded devotion required of that great generation was not the quality needed to enter Canaan, the Land of Israel.The next generation had different challenges and did an about-face. They preoccupied themselves with the production of good deeds. They didn’t have the emotional and spiritual baggage of the previous generation and therefore embarked on a different path. The Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 26B) says, the more a person bends himself or herself in submission and humility, the better. Stripping one’s negative ego is crucial for a successful relationship with G-d and people. The ticket to Canaan was submission to the mission of living, cultivating, and passing on a message that would ultimately change the world.These two approaches, one requiring great self confidence and toughness, the other submission to the people and circumstances in life, are both necessary for the different challenges in life. When you are at a social gathering and people start bashing the “occupation” of Palestine by Israel it will take self-confidence and tenacity-guts-to speak up and not let the pernicious lies to go further but it takes an entirely different skill to remain silent when one’s spouse or friend gives you words of rebuke. It takes humility and a shedding of ego. What challenges in life are you encountering? Which approach is the most appropriate for you at stage in your life? Shabbat Shalom(Sources: Nesivos Shalom, Bamidbar pp. 8-10 from Beis Avraham of Slonim