Leadership of the People Earned and Lost

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Parshat Bamidbar

In chapter three of our new sefer, Hashem has Moshe designate the Levi’im to serve in the Mishkan, under Aharon’s direction. In verses twelve to thirteen, Hashem clarifies they are being taken in place of the first-born, who “belonged” to Hashem since they were spared in Egypt, in the plague of the first-born. Still later, we are told there were 273 more first-born than Levi’im, who had no replacement when the Levi’im stepped in for them, and had to pay five shekalim to redeem themselves.

Levi’im and First-Born: Privileged or Encumbered?

Kli Yakar questions the flow. We usually think the Levi’im were elevated by their position, an idea ratified by Moshe’s reaction to Korach’s rebellion. He upbraids the Levi’im for seeking more when already given so much. Their role separated them for the better, made them a special class among the people.

Until then, it had been the privilege of the first-born, forfeited when they participated in the sin of the Golden Calf. They had held this role before the last of the plagues; besides, being saved from death would obligate the kohanim more like servants or slaves, not put them in a superior position. What does Hashem mean by invoking that moment here?

Kli Yakar believes these two verses were focused on the process of swapping Levi’im for first-born (as verse twelve indeed says). The trade would indeed privilege the Levi’im with the nobility held by the first-born until then. But Hashem knew there were going to be extra first-born, knew they might complain about having to pay to redeem themselves, when they were already having their rights taken away. The first-born might complain they were being punished twice for the one sin of the Golden Calf, losing their status and having to pay.

Two Sides to the First-Born’s Position

To answer, Hashem says they owed two debts, having been saved in Egypt and of their serious sin at the Golden Calf. The latter meant they were no longer fit for their original role (one way they could have worked off their debt from Egypt, I think he means), and the former said that if they couldn’t find a replacement Levi, they owed God a redemption fee for Egypt.

He sees a duality in the first-born’s relationship with God. From long ago, they were the segment of the nation to perform ceremonial functions; as of the last of the plagues, they owed everything to God. The Golden Calf disqualified them from their first position. For those without a counterpart Levi, the plague salvation needed to be addressed, with a symbolic financial payment.

Math with Chatam Sofer: The Count of Binyamin and of the Camp of Ephrayim

The parsha first presents the count of the Jewish people by tribe, then regroups them by encampment, giving us the numbers for each tribe and camp. The tirbe of Binyamin had 35,400, the camp of Ephrayim had 108,100, we find out in 2:23-4. Shach’s siddur included those verses among ten Ramban said to recite daily. Conscious of kabbalistic elements he may not know, Chatam Sofer offers an idea for why these verses matter so much.

He starts with the obligation to recite a hundred berakhot a day, Menachot 43b, a number he connects to the numerological value of sa”m, a way of referring to the evil inclination/Angel of Death.

Population Indicates Role

The 35,400 members of the tribe of Binyamin are one hundred times 354, the number of days in an ordinary Jewish calendrical year. The Temple—where Tehillim 133;3 tells us God has placed blessing—was in their portion of land, because their population reflects a hundred blessings a day, to ensure the negative forces of the world do not take over.

In the future, though, the final verse in Tehillim will come true, all souls will praise God, a verse the Midrash thought included all breaths (neshama is souls, neshima is breath). There are 1080 breaths in an hour [the chalakim we refer to when announcing when the New Moon will be seen]; multiply those by a hundred, you have the population of the tribe of Ephrayim, whom Yehezkel 37;17 predicted will in the future reunite with Yehuda.

With an extra hundred, Chatam Sofer says, to stomp out the Angel of Death fully.

Everyone has a role for Chatam Sofer, and the parsha shows us we get by on a hundred berachot a day. When we find our way back to national unity, blessings with every breath, we will more fully conquer the forces of evil and of death.

The Jews Chose Their Leaders, and Chose Wisely

The parsha opens with Hashem’s command to Moshe to count the people, assisted by the leaders of each tribe. As a side note, Ha’amek Davar calls our attention to 1;4, where these leaders are called heads of beit avot, fathers’ houses. A beit av usually refers to a subset of a tribe, a family clan within the tribe. Here, the beit av is the whole tribe.

Our verse might make it seem these heads were being selected now, but Netziv disagrees. For example, the nesi’im, heads of tribes, already played a role in the collection of materials for the Mishkan as well as its dedicatory ceremonies, an idea made clear in Bamidbar 7;2.

He is now going to make two jumps, neither particularly questionable but also not the only way to read the text. He says these nesi’im were originally chosen by the people, who wanted leaders for all the usual reasons, and selected these men on their own. In our verse 1;4, Hashem was ratifying their choice rather than announcing new leaders. [I might have argued that Moshe chose them, following the instructions of his father-in-law back in Parshat Yitro. I like Netziv’s idea, think it fits well with a version of leadership selection I included in my recent novel, The Making of the Messiah, 2048.]

He thinks Hashem’s accepting those nesi’im means the people chose not solely by wealth and leadership qualities, but also their excellence in Torah study and fear of God. It is an optimistic view of how people pick whom to follow. [I could imagine, for example, the choice focused on qualities of charisma or being able to sell a pretty lie, but Hashem decided it was good enough not to need a do-over.]

It is a parsha of leadership, the first-born losing theirs while also “owing” God their lives, Binyamin leading us in fending off the Angel of Death with a hundred blessings a day, to give way to the greater blessing of every breath when we are fully reunited, a tradition of leadership already evident in the Jews’ having chosen wisely and well back in the desert.

About Gidon Rothstein

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