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We are Part of a Whole

By: Mrs. Aliza Schwartz

Sefer Bamidbar begins with Hashem counting Bnei Yisrael. “Count (lit. raise up) the entire congregation of Israel, by their families, by their fathers’ houses, according to the number of names…(1:2)” The words the Torah uses for “number of names” is b’mispar shemot, alluding to two seemingly opposite realities: Mispar/Numbers and Shemot/Names. When counting with numbers, one is merely a part of the whole. There are numbers that precedes you and a number that follows you. You are significant merely by being counted as part of the whole. In contrast, reckoning by name points to a person’s individuality. We are each unique with a special identity, with strengths and weaknesses that separate us from others. The Torah is emphasizing that to be a Jew, one has a dual reality: though we are part of a whole, at the same time, we exist as individuals.

This message is beautifully illustrated through the example of the sh’vatim. The first time that we meet the twelve tribes as a unit is the end of Sefer Bereshit. Yaakov is on his deathbed, and sees this as the moment to give closing messages and blessings to his sons. “Gather and listen, the sons of Yaakov, and listen to your Father Israel” (Gen 49, 2). He then proceeds to bless (and in some cases reprimand) his sons, each individually. A question arises: Why would Yaakov call all twelve sons to his bedside, only to address each one separately? Wouldn’t he want precious time alone with each son before his imminent death?

Yaakov is trying to teach his sons, and by extension all of us, an essential lesson. Yaakov obviously wanted all of his sons present to hear the praise, blessing, and scolding of each one, in their turn. Thus, he shared all of their strengths and weaknesses, so that the brothers could fully understand their place as the leaders of Bnei Yisrael. Where one had a weakness or had fault, another was strong and took charge. With their particular gifts and tendencies, each shevet had significance as both a part of the whole, and as individuals.

Looking forward to our parashah, we find the sh’vatim living the reality that Yaakov had imparted to his twelve sons. The p’sukim describe with incredible repetitive detail where each shevet camped in relation to the Mishkan, which was placed at the center. They each had a specific position relative to the Mishkan; in comprising the camp, each had significance; each a part of the greater the nation, whose center was Hashem. However, each shevet had its own flag, with different colors and images, representing their unique qualities and strengths.

The message for us is clear. We have tremendous significance both as a unit and as individuals. We each have our own strengths and weaknesses, challenges and accomplishments. It is when we use our uniqueness to join together with one another that we become a beautiful woven tapestry that is Am Yisrael. Each Jew is compared to a letter of the Torah scroll. For the Torah scroll to be kosher, each letter must appear without blemish. With each letter present, the depth and meaning of each word, each pasuk, emerges through the story that the letters tell. Each of us carries importance in our individuality, which leads to our strength and beauty as a united whole. 




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