Eli Lipschitz, Former Shaliach in Washington, Program Director at Israel Experience
In a classic scene from an old Monty Python film a charismatic leader stands in front of a mob of people and shouts out to them ‘Repeat after me – YOU ARE ALL INDIVIDUALS’, the entire mob repeats in unison ‘we are all individuals’. Only one person in the crowd shouts back ‘I’m not’.
The census taken at the beginning of Parshat Bamidbar, and that continues with the counting of the Leviim in Parshat Naso, takes the individual and makes him/her part of something bigger. One year and one month since leaving Egypt, the time the census was taken, may have been a serious amount of time in some aspects. We received the Torah, both written and oral. We built a Mishkan. We learnt all the laws of the sacrifices and of personal purity and impurity. However, in many ways we were still a group of individuals, each person or family caring for themselves. Even the monumental event of Matan Torah, the receiving of the Torah on Sinai, that we celebrated this week on Shavuot, where the people gathered beneath the Mountain ‘as one person in one heart’ seems to have been a short lived symbol of unity that dissolved the minute a difficulty appeared and the Golden Calf was formed.
At the beginning of Sefer Bamidbar, the Book of Numbers, there is an attempt to change this. Everyone gets counted; everyone is a number, one person part of a larger whole. Yet here too it doesn’t go all the way. Many commentators on Parshat Bamidbar discuss the difficulty of forging national unity while emphasizing the fact that each tribe had its own colors and standards, or as Rashi puts it – ‘the color of this one(‘s flag) was not like the color of this one(‘s flag)’ (Bamidbar 2, 1).
This unique unity in Am Yisrael seems to be something that was difficult for the people to grasp. On the one hand all of Shivtei Yisrael, the Tribes of Israel, surrounding one central symbol of the Mishkan and the Shchina, the divine presence that it represents, yet on the other hand they are split into their own separate tribes, set in specific places with specific jobs and character traits.
This dissonance in the unity of Am Yisrael leads us straight into this week’s Parsha, Parshat Naso. Immediately following the census and job description of Shevet Levi, the Torah goes on to discuss the laws of the Sotah and the Nazir. These are two types of people who take their individualism to an extreme.
Sotah, in the first case, begins with an ego, with a husband who believes that everything revolves around himself. He believes that it is his right to decide who his wife speaks to and with whom she may not. The Sotah herself in some cases is an individual as well; she doesn’t care about hurting others or about maintaining the fabric of society, she will do as she pleases and not care about the consequences. Both husband and wife, in their individual and egocentric actions, necessitate the erasing of the holy name of Hashem in the presence of the Shchina in an attempt to restore their unity and trust.
The Nazir is an individual from the opposite side of the spectrum. On the one hand he wants to add Kedusha and holiness to his daily life by restricting himself above and beyond the letter of the law. On the other hand, it seems to not be enough for him as a ‘regular’ part of Am Yisrael, or as the Talmud Yerushalmi (Nedarim 9) says – ‘is it not enough for you what the Torah has already forbidden us, you need to add more prohibitions on yourself?’ In an attempt to achieve a higher level of Kedusha as an individual, the Nazir needs to bring a sin offering, a Korban Chatat, to repent for shunning himself from Klal Yisrael.
The dualism between being part of a crowd or being an individual is something, that as observant Jews, we deal with in one way or another every single day. Am I praying on my own, when I feel like it, and in my own words or am I waiting to be part of a Minyan at a set time while reciting set prayers? Am I a small anonymous person within my tribe or am I Nazir and holy person in Am Yisrael – or am I a bit of both?
The answer to this question and to the dilemma that Am Yisrael was in, prior the journey to Eretz Yisrael, can be found at the end of Parshat Naso.
After Am Yisrael, in a great show of unity, donated everything they had to the building of the Mishkan, it was the turn of the Nisiim, the heads of the tribes, to donate their gifts to the Mishkan. Each one in turn came to give their unique individual gift to the Mishkan and to the worship of Hashem. In eighty nine repetitive Psukim, the Torah explains in great detail how each individual Nasi brought the exact same gift to the Mishkan. As individuals, they all brought the same thing.
It is the duty of the leaders of Am Yisrael to turn each and every individual into a piece of the puzzle that creates Klal Yisrael, who can then march in unison towards Eretz Yisrael. If even one person is too unique or too commonplace, it may just take another forty years of wandering in the desert before being able to come home.