by Jess Fain
I try to turn my cell phone off in shiur, but once in a while, I leave it on vibrate. Inevitably, that day is the day my father decides to call three times in a row. I leave shiur and say “Hi papa, I’m in class. Everything ok?” “Oh yeah! Just wanted to say hi.” “…Could we talk a bit later?” “Sure,” he says “Just one more quick question—are kids at school talking about Obama getting the Peace Prize? What do they think about it?” “Goodbye, Papa. I love you too.”
Living in Israel, thousands of miles away from my family in Miami, my dad is often tempted, like many parents, just to check in, to hear my voice, to make sure I’m ok. Thus Rashi describe the census that begins in the first verse of Parashat Bamidbar. God takes count of His children in three places: upon our exodus from Egypt, after the sin of the Golden Calf, and at this point, at the moment the Shechina comes to dwell in the Tabernacle. God counts us in times of need, in times of trauma, in times when He just needs to hear our voice say “Hi Papa, I love you too.”
In fact, Rashi starts his commentary to every book of the Torah (besides Bereshit) with mentioning of God’s love for the People of Israel. God recounts the names of His children to show His affection (Shmot), God directly encounters Moshe by name as opposed to passively (Vayikra), God speaks words of rebuke but does not enumerate the sins of Am Yisrael explicitly out of respect for the People (Devarim).
This is our ideal of parenthood: cautious in remembering us, respecting our individuality through our names, helping us better ourselves without guilting or embarrassing us in to change.
The parsha continues to teach us about proper parenting. Sanhedrin 19B remarks on the verse “Now these are the generations of Aaron and Moses” (3:1), subsequently followed only by the sons of Aaron! The gemara teaches us that although Moses is not their biological father, one who teaches another person’s child is mentioned as if he is their parent. On the surface, parshat Bamidbar is the story of predestination; groups are divided by their ancestral camps, the Levites by birth are mandated to care for the Mishkan. But Moses challenges our assumption that we can only affect what we are born to impact. Rather, even our biological role is malleable. We must take on responsibilities for which we aren’t necessarily destined.
The Torah and rabbinic literature remark extensively on the responsibilities of a parent to a child. But what of the responsibilities of a child to a parent? The gemara continues its parenting advice. Why do we say “Jacob, who redeemed Abraham” (Isaiah, 29:22)? Because Jacob, in the completing the path of the People of Israel, made all of Abraham’s parenting struggles worthwhile. While standing at the grave of his great-great-grandfather in Warsaw, a teacher of mine remarked “It’s not about me standing here and saying ‘so-and-so was my grandfather’. It’s hoping that he’s watching me, bragging, ‘so-and-so is my grandson’.”
What do we do to merit the pride of our parents? What do we do to merit God’s pride in us? How do we push ourselves to act every day in a manner that deserves the expansive love Rashi speaks of at the beginning of each book of the Torah? Harold Shulweis remarks “Say not that God is good, but that good is Godly.” God takes the time to count us, to assure we can all be truly present for His descent into the Mishkan. What will we do to deserve that love, to say “Hi Papa, I’m here, and I love you too.”