Tuesday, May 20, 2014

BaMidbar: Can Israel Be Counted?

Rabbi Yonatan (in Yoma 22b) noted a difficulty in the first verse of the Haftara. Sefer Bamidbar, the Book of Numbers, begins with a counting of the Jewish people; and the Haftara also speaks of Jewish demographics:
"וְהָיָה מִסְפַּר בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל כְּחוֹל הַיָּם אֲשֶׁר לֹא יִמַּד וְלֹא יִסָּפֵר"
"And the number of the children of Israel shall be as the sand of the sea, which cannot be measured nor counted" (Hosea 2:1).

Rabbi Yonatan asked the following question: if it says that the Jewish people cannot be counted, how is even possible to speak of "the number of the children of Israel"?

His answer: When they perform God's will - then they will be uncountable, like the sand of the sea. But if they fail to perform God's will, then there will be a finite "number of the children of Israel."

The Maggid of Dubno explained this Midrash with the following parable:

The Argument of the Two Boys

In a certain town were two small boys. Each one claimed that his father was richer.

"There is no one in town as rich as my dad," the first boy said. "His pockets are full of coins - dimes and quarters and nickels. Whenever he walks by, you can hear all of his coins jangling away!"

"It's true, your father has a lot of coins in his pockets," the second boy responded. " But if you ever see my dad pay for something, he opens up his wallet and you can see that it is full of dollar bills. And even if there are not as many bills as your father's coins, each one is worth a lot more than all of those dimes and nickels!"

Rare Jewels

So too, with the Jewish people. When they fail to fulfill God's will, they have a finite measure, and can be counted like any other people. They are like a pocket of coins, easily measured and counted.

But when they keep God's will, then they are beyond all regular calculations. Each one is a precious jewel. Even if they are counted, their true worth cannot be determined. Like valuable banknotes, each one is worth many, many coins....

(Adapted from Mishlei Ya'akov, pp. 304-305)

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Pesach: Both Beautiful and Ugly

The Midrash explains the verse, "I am black but comely" (Song of Songs 1:5) in the following fashion:

 "I am black in my own actions; but I am comely in the deeds of my forefathers."

The Poor Palace Dweller

A visitor once came to a city and beheld a peculiar sight:  an elegant residence in the finest part of the city, but in terrible disrepair. The grounds were overrun with weeds, and the trees were barely alive. Many of the windows were cracked and broken, stuffed with rags to keep out the cold and the wind.

Curious, he turned to a local resident, who explained to him that the beautiful house belonged to an indigent fellow who had inherited the home from wealthy ancestors. The current owner, however, lacked the funds to properly maintain the house.

"Were you to meet him," he continued, "you would see a thin man wearing an expensive suit - a suit that his father had bought for him for his wedding - and with rags on his feet."

The Israelites in Egypt

This was the state of the Israelites in Egypt. The Jewish people said: "I am black but comely." I have two contradictory qualities, I am both ugly and beautiful. I am blessed with some very good traits, but I also have some very bad ones. The reason for this situation: the good traits are those which I inherited from my lofty ancestors, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The bad ones, on the other hand, are my own negative traits, the result of my spiritual poverty.

(Adapted from Mishlei Yaakov, pp. 319-320)