Head of the line
Bamidbar — Numbers 1:1-4:20
May 25, 2011
This week’s parsha describes the census of the Israelite male population of military age and the ordering of the camp. The Mishkan (portable sanctuary) was to be at the center, with the kohanim and Levi’im camped around it and the remaining tribes surrounding them on all sides.
At the conclusion of the census, the Torah says, “The Israelites shall camp each with his standard under the banners of their ancestral house; they shall camp around the tent of meeting.” When the ordering of the camp was completed, each person had his or her unique place in relation to God and their fellow Israelites.
That’s important, because people need to know where they fit in. At the very beginning of the Torah, God says, “It is not good for man to be alone.” There, of course, it was said in connection with the creation of the first woman and the importance of marriage. But it goes beyond that — it’s simply not a good thing for people to be disconnected.
That’s why so many adopted children seek out their birth parents — they want to know where they come from. And that’s why personal genealogy is so popular; it began in earnest some 35 years ago, when the miniseries Roots showed many Americans the rewards of tracing their ancestors, and shows no signs of letting up.
People search for their forebears to be able to say, this is where I come from and here is where I fit in. Genealogy not only helps people capture a sense of their own history, it reminds us we are connected to hundreds, even thousands, of other people we have never met. It reminds us that all human beings really are one family, the children of one God.
But for some people, genealogy takes a kind of weird bounce. They believe that having the right ancestors should entitle them to special privileges or extraordinary honors.
There really are people who believe they are superior because of who their ancestors were, who believe they can claim credit for what their ancestors did. And there’s a Jewish version of this phenomenon: It’s not uncommon for people to approach rabbis and say, “My great-grandfather was a rabbi in Poland,” or, “My zayde was shomer Shabbos,” as if this were somehow a reason to praise the speaker. Yet, while the grandfather was undoubtedly a fine Jew, it’s hard to understand why the grandson who has abandoned his ancestor’s learning and practice seeks credit for it.
And that brings me to our parsha. When God instructs Moses to take the census, He says, “Associated with you shall be a man from each tribe, each one shall be the head of his ancestral house.” So far, so good — but the word hu (he) at the end of the Hebrew verse seems superfluous, as if it should be translated, “each one shall be the head of his ancestral house, he.”
This prompted Rabbi Zelig Pliskin, in Growth Through Torah, to tell the following story:
A simple and boorish person who came from distinguished lineage was arguing with a wise scholar who came from a very plain family. The coarse ignoramus boasted about his illustrious ancestors. “I am a scion of great people. Your ancestors are nothing compared to mine,” he arrogantly said. The scholar wanted to put him in his place and said to him, “True, you come from a long line of great people — but unfortunately the line ends with you. My family tree begins with me.”
This, said Rabbi Moshe Chaifetz, author of Meleches Machsheves, is the idea of our verse. Each man should be the head of his family’s lineage. He should be an elevated person in his own right, and his descendants should be proud to consider him their ancestor.
People trace their roots to find a connection to their ancestors. Some of us discover ancestors who were scholars and communal leaders, others find horse thieves and beggars. But that’s not really important, because we neither deserve credit nor accrue shame for the acts of our forebears. What’s important is that we choose to become the kind of ancestors of whom our descendants will be proud.
Rabbi Joyce Newmark, a resident of Teaneck, is a former religious leader of congregations in Leonia and Lancaster, Pa.