Pinchas 5777

The effects of a bad reputation[1]

ראובן בכור ישראל בני ראובן חנוך משפחת החנכי לפלוא משפחת הפלאי
[Regarding] Reuven, the first born of Israel: The sons of Reuven are Chanoch, [who has] the Chanoch family, Palu, who has the Palu family.[2]

After a terrible plague that badly affected the Jews in the wilderness, Hashem commanded Moshe to take a census of the people[3]. This is similar to a shepherd who counts his sheep after a wolf attacked the flock; he desires to know how many remain[4]. The Torah expends the effort to list every tribe, as well as every family in that tribe, as it tallies up the totals. However, the Torah does this in an unusual way. Every family that is listed has the letter ה preceding it and the letter י following it. For example, one of the sons of Reuven is Chanoch. When the Torah mentions the family of Chanoch[5], it calls them mishpachas HaChanochi. For his other son Palu it says mishpachas HaPalui. Why does the Torah do this, not only for this family, but every family mentioned?

Rashi cites[6] the Midrash[7] that explains as follows. The Jews were very proud of their heritage. They descended from three giants, Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov. Yaakov had twelve sons, who each in turn had their own sons. The Jews in the wilderness always identified with their ancestors, and were known as the son of so-and-so the son of so-and-so. However, the nations of the world mocked this pride. They brought up the fact that the Jews were in Egypt for 210 years. The Egyptians had full control of their bodies, making them do whatever they wanted. Is it really possible that everyone’s mothers could remain totally faithful to their husbands? For all the Jews knew, they really descend from the Egyptians! They had no right to boast about their ancestry, as it could all be a sham. To disprove these assertions, Hashem signed part of His name, the letters י and ה, to each and every family to testify to its purity. Miraculously, everyone’s mothers were able to remain faithful and the Jews had a right to be proud of their heritage.

Despite this explanation, it’s hard to understand how adding letters to each family’s name is going to change anything. Is anyone really going to be convinced by this? If they want to mock, this won’t stop them. As well, why is this the first time that this phenomenon with the family names is happening? This isn’t the first census that has been conducted since leaving Egypt, rather the third. Why wait until now, and not do it right after the Jews left Egypt, by the first census[8]?

The Tolner Rebbe has a fascinating approach to both of these issues[9]. The gemarra describes[10] the steps Dovid Hamelech took to repent from his encounter with Bas-sheva[11]. He said a series of prayers to Hashem, asking for His forgiveness, all of which are recorded in Tanach[12]. First he said, “Who can discern innocent mistakes?”, and Hashem forgave his mistakes. Then he said, “Cleanse me from unwitting sins!”, and Hashem forgave his unwitting sins. He added, “Spare your servant from even intentional transgressions”, and Hashem forgave his intentional transgressions. He finished, “Don’t let them rule over me”, meaning he did not want the Rabbis to look down on him for his past sins. Hashem promised him that that wouldn’t happen.

The gemarra compares[13] Dovid’s tactics to those of a peddler. Usually a peddler doesn’t try to sell someone their expensive wares first. They start with the small products and gradually convince people to buy more and more[14]. Rashi says[15] Dovid was similar to a beggar who knocks on the door and asks for a cup of water. After receiving the water, they ask for a little bit of an onion. After receiving the onion, they ask: “How is it possible to eat an onion without some salt?”. After receiving the salt, they request some bread to help digest the onion. If they had immediately asked for the bread, they might have been turned down. However, asking for something small first got them in the door. It led the way for them to ask for more. Dovid did the exact same. First he asked for something small to be forgiven, and worked his way up. What was the biggest thing he asked for? That no one should look down on him; that he shouldn’t be considered a wicked person. This request is something he simply had to receive. Why was he so concerned about what others thought about him?

If a person looks at themself as a horrible person, they have no hope to improve. They will inevitably give up ever trying to change. A person should never look at themself as a wicked person[16]. People need a feeling of self-worth to inspire them to grow. If a person sees themself as a great person, they will realize that certain acts are beneath them. They will know that they are better than that. Dovid knew that if people thought he was a wicked person, it would have a terrible effect on him. He would eventually start to feel the same way, and then he would be hopeless. This is why he prayed to Hashem to make sure that this wouldn’t happen. Hashem listened to his prayers.

This explains the phenomenon with the census. Hashem wasn’t attaching His name to each family’s name for the sake of the ridiculing nations. It was for the self-esteem of the Jews. The assertions of the nations that the Jews didn’t have a rich ancestry might have had an effect on them. It might have become true in their eyes. Therefore, Hashem testified that it was not so. Their ancestors were able to remain faithful, and the Jews didn’t need to heed the words of the scoffers. This was especially necessary forty years after leaving Egypt, with the new generation about to enter the land of Israel. The original generation that left Egypt wouldn’t have been affected by the scoffers. They knew who their parents were, and wouldn’t have taken these comments seriously. Their children however, who couldn’t be as confident, might have been affected. Hashem didn’t let that happen.

Good Shabbos.

[1] Based on a devar Torah given by Rabbi Yissocher Frand from Ner Yisroel in 5773. The original can be read here:

[2] Numbers 26:5

[3] ibid 26:1

[4] Rashi to verse 5

[5] Numbers 26:5

[6] ad. loc.

[7] Pesiktah DeRav Kahanah 11:6. See Shir HaShirim Rabbah 4:12 and Midrash Tehillim 122:5, and Torah Sheleimah Bamidbar Chapter 26 § 9

[8] Chasam Sofer Al HaTorah to Numbers 1:18 s.v. הבו לה’ משפחות עמים. See there for his own answer to this final question

[9] In his sefer Heimah Yenachamuni

[10] Sanhedrin 107a

[11] See II Samuel Chapters 11, 12

[12] Psalms 19:13-14

[13] loc. cit.

[14] Rashi ad. loc.

[15] To Psalms loc. cit.

[16] Avos 2:13