This week’s alumni dvar torah is by Rabbi Dani Rockoff
Bemidbar, the book of Numbers, begins with a census of the tribes of Israel.
Each tribe is counted with the following formula:
לִבְנֵ֣י… תּוֹלְדֹתָ֥ם לְמִשְׁפְּחֹתָ֖ם לְבֵ֣ית אֲבֹתָ֑ם בְּמִסְפַּ֣ר שֵׁמֹ֗ת מִבֶּ֨ן עֶשְׂרִ֤ים שָׁנָה֙ וָמַ֔עְלָה כֹּ֖ל יֹצֵ֥א צָבָֽא:
For the sons of…their offspring according to their families according to their father’s household, by number of the names, from twenty years of age and up. Their numbers…
There are some subtle differences in the counting of two of the tribes, and a very substantial difference with another.
Reuven and Shimon each have subtle differences.
וַיִּהְי֤וּ בְנֵֽי־רְאוּבֵן֙ בְּכֹ֣ר יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל תּוֹלְדֹתָ֥ם לְמִשְׁפְּחֹתָ֖ם לְבֵ֣ית אֲבֹתָ֑ם בְּמִסְפַּ֤ר שֵׁמוֹת֙ לְגֻלְגְּלֹתָ֔ם כֹּל־זָכָ֗ר מִבֶּ֨ן עֶשְׂרִ֤ים שָׁנָה֙ וָמַ֔עְלָה כָּ֖ל יֹצֵ֥א צָבָֽא
These were the sons of Reuben, firstborn of Israel, their offspring according to their families, according to their father’s household, by number of the names, according to their head count (לגלגלתם).
לִבְנֵ֣י שִׁמְע֔וֹן תּוֹלְדֹתָ֥ם לְמִשְׁפְּחֹתָ֖ם לְבֵ֣ית אֲבֹתָ֑ם פְּקֻדָ֗יו בְּמִסְפַּ֤ר שֵׁמוֹת֙ לְגֻלְגְּלֹתָ֔ם כָּל־זָכָ֗ר מִבֶּ֨ן עֶשְׂרִ֤ים שָׁנָה֙ וָמַ֔עְלָה כֹּ֖ל יֹצֵ֥א צָבָֽא
For the sons of Simeon…. its numbers (פקדיו), by number of names, according to their headcount.
Reuven is singled out as the firstborn. Shimon is singled out by being counted according to the singular, “his numbers,” rather than the plural “their numbers.”
Both Reuven and Shimon have the phrase “according to their headcount,” which no other tribe does.
The tribe with the most significant difference is Levi. They are not counted along with Bnei Yisrael.
אַ֣ךְ אֶת־מַטֵּ֤ה לֵוִי֙ לֹ֣א תִפְקֹ֔ד וְאֶת־רֹאשָׁ֖ם לֹ֣א תִשָּׂ֑א בְּת֖וֹךְ בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל
But you shall not count the tribe of Levi, and you shall not take a census of them among the Children of Israel (1:49)
What do these three tribes have in common? They anger their father Yaakov in two separate episodes in Parshat Vayishlach.
Shimon and Levi murder the men of Shechem. Yaakov reprimands them:
You have decomposed me, making me odious among the inhabitants of the land, among the Canaanite and among the Perizzite; I am few in number and should they band together and attack me, I will be annihilated (34:30).
Reuven acts inappropriately with Bilha after Rachel’s death. “And Israel heard.” After a break, the Torah continues: The sons of Jacob were twelve. The sons of Leah, Jacob’s first-born Reuben…” (35:22-23)
There is a common thread in these episodes. Yaakov’s sons act in defense of the family’s honor. To Shimon and Levi, Yaakov responds that they have jeopardized not only the family’s honor but its very survival, “I am few in number… I will be annihiliated.” To Reuven, Yaakov says nothing, though the Torah makes it clear that he has taken note of his actions. The Torah emphasizes that Reuven is still counted amongst the sons of Yaakov, “The sons of Jacob were twelve.”
Yaakov expresses his anger explicitly in his words to them on his deathbed.
Reuven, you are my firstborn, my strength and initial vigor….. Water-like impetuosity– you cannot be foremost, because you mounted your father’s bed…. (49:3-4)
To Shimon and Levi:
Simeon and Levi are comrades, their weaponry is a stolen craft. Into their conspiracy, may my soul not enter! with their congregation, do not join, O my honor!…. I will separate them within Jacob, and I will disperse them in Israel.
Moving ahead to Bemidbar, both Reuven and Shimon are counted among Israel. In the same vein as “And the sons of Jacob were twelve.” But there are subtle hints to their past wrongdoing. Reuven stands out as the “first born”: he was Yaakov’s first strength, but failed to fulfill his calling. Shimon too stands alone, counted “according to his numbers.”
This theme continues in V’zot Habracha, where Moshe makes no mention of Shimon and only scant mention of Reuven:
Let Reuven live and not die, and may his population be included in the count (33:6)
The actions of members of the tribes of Reuven and Shimon do not offer much in the way of redemption. Prominent members of the Korach-alliance are from the tribe of Reuven. The head of the tribe of Shimon consorted with a Midianite princess and many of their tribe were killed off in the subsequent plague.
The tribe of Levi, however, fares significantly better.
True to Yaakov’s words, they are not counted among Israel. They will not be part of legions of Israel, nor will they inherit the land. They can not overcome that.
But their initial banishment is turned into a positive. In Bemidbar they are tasked with being in the center of the camp and taking care of the Mishkan.
The tribe of Levi redeemed themselves, due to their lack of participation in the sin of the Golden Calf. In fact, in our parsha, they formally replace the first born as those to serve the Mishkan.
The book of Bemidbar opens with a census and structure of the camp that conveys a sense of unity and order of the tribes of Israel Just as Yaakov continued to count Reuven, Shimon, and Levi among his children, so too here they remain part and parcel of the nation that is now preparing to enter the Promised Land.
Yet the consequences of past behaviors come to the fore in subtle and also pronounced ways. In the context of the census, Reuven and Shimon’s faults are subtly hinted. Later, the behavior of its tribe would demonstrate lessons still not learned.
Levi on the other hand provides the unique example of one who was once banished for his actions who managed to redeem himself. Levi turned its role from one of isolation to one of unique dedication and service to the whole of Israel.
Rabbi Dani Rockoff (SBM 98-00) is the Rabbi of Congregation Beth Israel Abraham & Voliner in Overland Park, KS.