Bamidbar is known as the Book of Numbers [Chomesh HaPekudim] because it begins with a census of the Jewish people and then there is another census in Parshas Pinchas, towards the end of the sojourn in the wilderness.
In this week’s census, there is a pattern that repeats itself in the enumeration of all the sub-families of the various tribes. The very first time this pattern is introduced, Rashi cites a Medrash – in connection with the sub-family of Reuvein’s son Chanoch [Bamidbar 26:5]. The Torah refers to the family as “Mishpachas HaChanochI. The name of the head of the family is prefixed with the letter Hay and followed by the letter Yud. These two letters (Yud-Hay) represent the name of G-d which thus surrounds the family name.
According the Medrash cited by Rashi, the nations of the world would mock the Jews’ insistence on tracing their lineage to specific family divisions: “Why do these trace their ancestry by their tribes? Are they under the impression that the Egyptians did not have their way with their mothers? If the Egyptians ruled over the Israelites’ bodies, how much more is it true that they ruled over their wives?”
Therefore, the Medrash continues, “That is why the Holy One, Blessed is He, placed His Name upon them – with the letter Hay on one side of the family name and the letter Yud on the other side, to say ‘I testify about them that they are the children of their fathers.'” This is also stated clearly by Dovid HaMelech [King David] “Tribes of G-d (Yud-Hay), a testimony for Israel” [Tehillim 122:4].
G-d testifies, as it were, that Klal Yisrael remained pure and unadulterated in all their years in Egypt.
But let as ask ourselves a question: Is it realistic to expect that this will convince the Gentiles? The Gentiles are clearly not going to be convinced by the formulations: “HaChanochI”, “HaPaluI”, “HaChetzronI” that the lineage of the Jewish families was untainted. So who is the Torah trying to impress here?
Furthermore, the Chasam Sofer asks – if this formulation is supposed to testify that there were not any extra-marital relationships amongst the Jewish people in Egypt, then why was this type of formulation not used in the first census at the beginning of the Book of Bamidbar?
The Sefer Heimah Yenachamuni from the present Tolner Rebbe Shlita of Jerusalem has an approach which answers both these questions. Rav Weinberg prefaces his discussion by referencing the Talmudic analysis [Sanhedrin 107] of Dovid HaMelech’s prayers for forgiveness after his “sin” with BatSheva. The Talmud expounds on the pasukim [verses] in Tehillim which allude to those prayers [Tehillim 119:13-14]:
Rav Dostai of Biri expounded: To what is Dovid comparable? To a Kusi merchant (who lures customers into buying more than they were expecting to buy, by selling them a little bit at once and then convincing them to buy more and more). Dovid first said “Shgiyos mi yavin” (who can discern mistakes) and G-d told him that unwitting mistakes are forgiven. Then he continued “m’nistaros nakeyni” (from unknown sins cleanse me). G-d told him those too were forgiven. Then Dovid proceeded “Gam m’zeydim chasoch avdecha” (also from intentional sins spare Your sevant). This too G-d forgave him. Dovid then said “Al yimshelu bee” (Let it be Your Will that the Rabbis not talk about me (negatively for my actions)”. G-d granted him this request as well.
Rashi in Tehillim explains why Dovid HaMelech is compared to a Kusi peddler. He gives an example. It is like someone comes to the door and asks for a glass of water. The house owner readily agrees to this request. Once he drinks the glass of water, he asks for a piece of onion, and then when that request too is granted he asks for a little salt to go with the onion. Next he asks for a slice of bread to go with the salt and onion so that he will not be eating such sharp foods by themselves on an empty stomach.
This is the parable. Had he asked for the bread right away, the homeowner would have turned him down for making an unreasonable request. So he began with a very innocent request and worked his way up gradually, making it hard for the homeowner to say no at any point in time. So too, Dovid initially only asked for forgiveness for unintentional sins. Then he worked his way up to the intentional and more rebellious sins. But in climbing up this ladder of requests, the biggest thing that Dovid asked for is that the Rabbis not disassociate themselves from him because they considered him to be a sinner. This was the ultimate request. That request too was granted.
The Tolner Rebbe Shlita asks why Dovid was so worried about this. In answering the question, the Tolner Rebbe makes a very important point regarding human behavior. The point is that if a person considers himself in his own eyes a sinner and a spiritual midget, then he is easy pickings for the Evil Inclination. A person should never look at himself as though he is wicked. If he considers himself to be a “rasha” [wicked] then the Evil Inclination can come to him and say “What do you care, you are a “rasha” anyway!?” There is nothing wrong with a “nobody” sinning! Everyone must have a sense of self-worth.
If a person believes in himself, if he looks at himself as an important person and as a ‘Ben Torah’ and as a ‘Talmid Chochom,’ then he will yell at himself “How can I do this!?” If one sees himself in his own eyes like he is the dregs of society, then that is how he will act. He is easy prey to fall even further, because there is nothing to restrain him.
This is how the Tolner Rebbe explains Dovid’s plea to the Almighty. After he received atonement from the Almighty, he was worried about one other thing. He said, “People will no longer look at me as a righteous person, as a man of integrity. If they are going to view me in that way, it will have an effect on me. I too will look at myself as if I am wicked!” Therefore, after he achieved forgiveness on all levels of iniquity — be they unintentional or intentional or rebellious – he said “Please one more thing: Let the Rabbis treat me with respect, so that I will be able to treat myself with respect!”
With this preface, the Tolner Rebbe explains the Medrash regarding Klal Yisrael. We asked, “What difference does it make to the nations that the names of the families of Israel are surrounded by the letters of G-d’s Name as testimony to their purity?”
The answer is that in fact it makes no difference to the nations of the world. But it will make a difference to the Jewish people! It is important for us to know and to have Divine Certification that we are not illegitimate. We should know and appreciate the fact that our lineage is pure.
With this approach, the Tolner Rebbe answers the question of the Chasam Sofer – why did they not need this same thing in the census at the beginning of Bamidbar when they first came out of Egypt? It is because if the Goyim came to that first generation that left Egypt and told them “Your mothers were unfaithful!” those who heard such charges would have dismissed them outright. “I know that is not true. That is baloney!” In that first generation, that which the Goyim might have said would not have had an effect.
But now, 40 years later, that generation is all dead. The new generation that is coming into Eretz Yisrael had no first-hand knowledge of what transpired in Egypt. A little voice might go off in their heads when they hear allegations that their mothers were dominated during the years of slavery by Egyptian masters and plant seeds of doubt: “Maybe they are right. Maybe I am illegitimate. Maybe we do not possess the pure lineage tracing back to the Patriarchs that we think we possess.” That would have a very negative effect on their self-perception and self-image.
Therefore, G-d testified: Perish the thought. Not true! G-d surrounded each family patriarch with the letter of His Divine Name to personally testify, as it were, to the purity of their lineage. For it is very important for each and every person to appreciate the greatness of who he is and who he comes from. The more a person realizes who he is and believes in himself and considers himself to be a Ben Torah, the more he is protected from the wiles of the Yetzer Hara