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Beit Midrash Torah Portion and Tanach Bamidbar

Hirsch At Your Table

Maintaining Diversity

A brief Dvar Torah on the Parsha, based on R. Samson Raphael Hirsch’s Torah Commentary
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שאו את ראש כל עדת בני ישראל למשפחותם לבית אבותם במספר שמות כל זכר לגולגלותם. (Nm 1:2)
After the completion of the Mishkan in the Sinai desert on the first day of the month of Iyar in the second year since the Exodus, God commands Moshe to conduct a census of the entire nation. He is to count everyone according to their family groupings and their tribal associations. The census is a head-count done through the medium of the half shekel given by each man for the upkeep of the Mikdash.

The use of the phrase עדת בני ישראל relating to the census signals that the counting was done in order to determine the number of people who could be counted as faithful to the national mission of Torah observance. The word עדת parallels the phrase פיקודי that was used in the first mention of a census detailed in Ex 30:12. An עדה is a group of people who on their own and without external pressure have come together for a common ייעוד , a joint mission. Both of these words connote solidarity in accepting and achieving a mission, a common goal.

The word עדת is from the root י-ע-ד which means "to arrange" to meet together. The word פיקודי is from the root פ-ק-ד which means "to invest with a purpose or responsibility".


The instructions for this census project a unique characteristic that is to be part of the Jewish makeup. The instruction to Moshe speaks of family, משפחה, and tribe, בית אב. These twin identifications stress the uniqueness of each sub-group. The nation, בית ישראל as a whole, was to retain the specific characteristics of each family and each tribe. There was not to be a "melting pot" effect whereby the differences in skills, habits and even personalities were to be integrated into a single body politic. This diversity was to be a strength in preserving the nation, as each person/family/tribe was encouraged to maintain a unique identity and to develop their skills, and no one would be forced to change identity in order to fit a single image.

The word משפחה is from the root ש-פ-ח which means "to join family" and become part of it. The word בית is from the root ב-י-ת which means "to contain and protect." The word אב is from the root א-ב-ה which means "to submit" and conform to leaders' demands."


The concept of maintaining a unique identity goes further than the identities of families and tribes, an idea that is underlined by the requirement of מספר שמות, number of names. As each male head ((גולגולת presented his half-shekel, he announced his name and his family and tribal association. He therefore projected to himself and to others his particular standing and his individuality, as well as his identity as part of the larger family and tribe. And by giving the half shekel, he declared, as well, his commitment to being part of the national mission.


The word מספר is from the root ס-פ-ר "to combine separate items and tally sums." The word שמות is from the root ש-ו-ם "to arrange in place." A name places a thing in the consciousness of a person. The word גולגולת is from the root ג-ל-ל "to rotate" something. A person's head or skull is a rounded object.


The Jewish nation was in fact a single household (בית ישראל) and children (בני) of a single person (ישראל\יעקב). Irrespective of numbers and family ties, the nation would be united in a single mission and a single destiny. However, diversity, whether tribal, familial, or individual, , must be nurtured in order to allow for differences in character, talents, and professions.


Copyright © 2014, Matityahu Clark. All Rights Reserved. This is an excerpt from the forthcoming Hirsch At Your Table, a collection of brief divrei torah based on R. Samson Raphael Hirsch’s Torah Commentary.
Rabbi Matityahu Clark
Served in principal/director positions throughout North America. One of the founders of the Educator's Council of America, and former president of the Council for Jewish Education. Former Director of the Board of Jewish Education of Greater Washington.
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