Wednesday, May 21, 2014

A Soldier By The Looks Of Him, Who Came Through Many Fights (Robert Hunter & Jerry Garcia - "Lady With a Fan")

Several weeks ago, Israel commemorated Yom HaZikaron, a day in which Israel takes a moment to remember its fallen soldiers. Early next week, the United States will commemorate Memorial Day. Originally known as Decoration Day, it commemorated all those soldiers who had died fighting in the Civil War – for both the North and the South.  By the early Twentieth century, Memorial Day replaced Decoration Day as all soldiers who had died in all of the United States wars were commemorated and memorialized on the last Monday in May.  As a kid, I always remember that each town would have Memorial Day Parade. There would always be an elderly veteran lighting a candle near where the Town’s memorial for those who died in the Civil War, WWI and WWII. In fact nearly every small town throughout the north east and the Midwest has some type of memorial that lists those who died. This is especially the case in terms of the Civil War.  Once, while in Niagara Falls, my son called attention such a memorial. Yes, Memorial Day also served as the unofficial start of summer. Yes, many stores would be open.  Yes, I am sure most Americans don’t think twice about the solemnity of the day, but there are still small towns, and certainly there are Memorials that counted the names, listed the names of those who served and didn’t come home.  We watch the ceremony at Arlington National cemetery and explain the importance of commemorating those who died in service to their country. Memorial Day shouldn’t be confused with Veterans Day which celebrates all those who served their country and lived.
             This Shabbat we begin the fourth book of the Torah, Sefer Bemidbar, by reading the first Parsha, Bemidbar. Literally meaning “In the Wilderness”, this fourth book of the Torah resumes the narrative format with B'nai Yisroel preparing to leave the foot of Mount Sinai. For the past year, B'nai Yisroel has essentially camped out at Har Sinai and listened to Moshe and Aharon teach all the laws concerning Tamei/Tahor –Purity and Impurity, Kodesh and Chol – the Holy and the Mundane, as well as the laws for Korbonot, sacrificial offerings. Prior to B'nai Yisroel’s embarking on the remainder of its journey a census is required. In fact, Parsha Bemidbar consists of three types of census. The first census counts all men over the age of twenty that come from all the tribes except for the Levites. The second census focuses only upon the Levites. Since this tribes’ sole function is to operate and manage the Mishkan, ascertaining the number of workers in the Mishkan suggests the importance of the Mishkan to the everyday life of the B'nai Yisroel. The third census focuses upon the organizational placement of each tribe around the Mishkan while traveling.
The Census that God commands Moshe at the beginning of this fourth book of the Torah is very different than the last census taken. Until now there had been one Census taken while Bnai Yisroel was at Sinai, engaged in the construction of the Mishkan. All the way back in Parsha Ki Tissa, in Sefer Shmot (the Book of Exodus) God had commanded Moshe to count everyone by levying a half shekel tax. In fact we are commanded not to count by pointing and counting but rather we would count the number of ½ Shekel collected and that number would then tell us the total number of men twenty years and older. (Ex 30:11-14) Now God commands Moshe S’u Et Rosh Kol Adat Bnai Yisroel L’Mishpechotam L’Veit Avotam Mispar Sheimot  Kol Zachar L’Gulgulotam; Miben Esrim Shana Va’Malah Kol Yotzei Tzavah B’Yisroel Tifkedu Otam….- Take a census of the entire assembly of the Children of Israel according to  their families, according to their father’s household, by number of the names and every male according to their head count; from  twenty years of age an up everyone who goes out to the legion in Israel, you shall count them (Num. 1:2-3)…. Abravanel, the 15th century Portugese commentator points out the apparent contradiction in the two types of census:  the first being found in the Sefer Shmot, and the second in Parsha Bemidbar. “Surely this (Bemidbar) is just the opposite of what the Torah had commanded on an earlier occasion (Sefer Shmot Parsha Ki Tissa).” There in Ki Tissah, they poll (a tax) was taken.  “How could the Almighty have commanded them here to number them by their polls?” Abravanel notes the word “Tifekedu Otam” – you shall “account for them” (according to Rashi and “accounting” is a Poll or a levied tax).  Ramban, the 12th century Spanish commentator and philosopher points out that Tifkedu is an expression of visitation, remembrance and providence.  
The Census in Parsha Bemidbar was a census to determine those who were eligible to fight, who will be asked to perhaps give their lives for the welfare of the nation.  If and when the time came and they did have to lay down their lives who would have remembered them? Who would have mourned them? Who would tell stories about them and carry on their name?  L’Mishpechotam L’Veit Avotam Mispar Sheimot    to their families, according to their father’s household by number of the names. Perhaps that is why in nearly every small town, at the town square, there is a monument for those who gave their lives. The loss of those fine young men would have been most felt by the small towns and villages they grew up in and the communities in which they were associated. Yes, Memorial Day might be the first unofficial day in summer in the United States, but it is also a day in which people should take a moment and appreciate what so many have done in service to their country.

Rav Yitz

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