Parashat Pinhas: Pride and pedigree

Whenever we fail to carry out a divinely appointed task, the result will be a loss of self-respect.

census people 88 (photo credit: )
census people 88
(photo credit: )
The usual convention is to name each of the Five Books (of Moses) by the first words of each book; the Midrash, however, gives names to each depending on its subject. Hence Genesis (Bereishit) is called The Book of the Righteous Ones (Sefer Yesharim); and Numbers is The Book of the Censuses (Sefer Pikudim). Indeed, there are two census counts taken in this fourth book of the Bible, but how does a census define the message of this book? A glimpse into the introduction of each of the two censuses will tell the tale - and will even explain what caused the devastating descent of the Israelites from an exalted nation of proud tribes surrounding the Sanctuary and poised to conquer the Land, into a frightened, fragile, fractured and fractious grasshopper-like people doomed to die in the desert. The census at the beginning of Numbers opens as follows: "Take a census of the entire assembly of the Children of Israel according to their families, according to the homes of their parents, by number of the names, every male according to their head count, from 20 years of age and up, all who go out to the army in Israel… " (Numbers 1:2, 3). When we compare this to the introduction of the second census in our portion of Pinhas - 39 years later - we find two remarkable differences: the first census begins with the family tree of each individual ("lemishpehotam") - which Rashi defines as the tribal pedigree going back at least to the pertinent son of Jacob/Israel - and includes as well the personal name of each individual. Both of these seemingly necessary pieces of information are strangely lacking from the second census, which includes neither the family nor the personal name. What are these omissions telling us? On one level, since the Israelite family pedigree - which harks back to the patriarchs Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Leah/Rachel - links the individual Jew to what we consider royalty, and since a personal first name adds a sense of significance to the one being counted, the omission of these factors suggest a serious diminution in self-pride and self-importance. And this is most understandable; whenever we fail to carry out a divinely appointed task, such as the failure of the Israelites to even attempt the conquest of the Promised Land, the result will be a loss of self-respect. But the omissions may be even more significant: Perhaps the lack of family pedigree and individual name may reflect not the result but rather the cause for the Israelites' loss of nerve at a crucial moment, and their decision to remain in the desert, off to the side of history rather than at the center stage of world redemption as heirs to the prophetic teachings. Remember that the Israelites had suffered 210 years of Egyptian enslavement. This was more than enough time to have forgotten their Abrahamic roots in the land which God had promised his covenantal nation, to have forgotten the divine charge to teach all succeeding generations "righteousness and justice," to have forgotten their mission to be the medium through which "all the families of the earth would be blessed." And so the Hebrews in the desert forgot their ancestral pedigrees, forgot their familial yihus. Conventional wisdom has it that yihus, familial pedigree, bestows extra privilege. I remember as a boy (little more than 12 years of age) going into a famous lower East Side knishery. When I enquired as to the kashrut certification, the proprietor - a bald-pated, bareheaded gentlemen - laughed superciliously, pointing to an impressive portrait on the wall of a venerable, bearded, patriarchal figure with a black fedora and a Prince Albert coat. "That was my father, the originator of this establishment, and you dare question our kashrut?" I responded shyly but firmly: "If you were hanging on the wall and your father was sitting in front of me, I would never have asked the question. But since it's the other way around…" Needless to say, we didn't buy any knishes that day. In fact, yihus has nothing to do with privilege, and everything to do with obligation; familial pedigree should inspire a sense of noblesse oblige, a sense of responsibility which emanates from pride in family accomplishment and identification with family mission. Knowing that one's forebears lived noble lives and accomplished noteworthy feats should provide a sense of empowerment and self-confidence to continue in the familial tradition. But this presupposes a strong sense of connection to one's ancestry, a profound identification with one's history. Apparently the Israelites felt this continuity when they stood at Sinai, but lost it during their desert sojourn. Somehow, after the first census, they no longer felt united, links in a golden chain of historical experience, to the sons of Jacob/Israel, to the grandsons of Abraham. And they no longer felt obligated to honor the covenant between Abraham and his God, to fulfill the divine Will and forge a holy nation and a kingdom of priest-teachers. And with the loss of their link to royal ancestors came the loss of their own individual princely insignia. Tragically, this same disconnect with the past afflicts Israeli leaders today. The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.