A fair amount of times, the Torah reports that the Jewish People conducted a census, breaking down how many men were in each tribe, and then adds up the subtotals for a total count. It occupies a lot of space in the Torah.

The Ramban explains that taking a census is a basic government function to organize logistics, safety, and military planning.

While that is accurate, the Torah’s lessons are timeless and eternal. Of what value to us is the level of detail in the raw statistical data from each census?

The Ramban explains that the information itself is more relevant to daily government, which is probably why it only covered military-age men. But the lesson isn’t in the data; it’s in the method of counting.

The way they counted was that every individual would have to appear before Moshe and Ahron, and God. The requirement to appear before the entire generation’s leadership tells us that those people were not just numbers; they were valuable individuals.

There is a constant interplay between individualism and collectivism. Individualism stresses individual identity and goals; collectivism focuses on group identity and goals, what is best for the collective group. The notion of collectivism and unity – אַחְדוּת – is all too often propounded to squash individuality, and we mustn’t tolerate that. You are not just a cog in a machine, with another human being at the ready to take your place. You are not the property of the state or any group or person.

And as the Lubavitcher Rebbe put it, people are not dollars. You are not fungible. You are not replaceable.

R’ Jonathan Sacks highlights the Torah’s choice of words for the count – שְׂאוּ אֶת־רֹאשׁ כָּל־עֲדַת בְּנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵל / כִּי תִשָּׂא אֶת־רֹאשׁ בְּנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵל – literally, “lift the heads.” There are many ways to say “count” in Hebrew; this isn’t one of the naturally obvious ones. Again, the Torah seems to be saying that even among the crowd, lift your head up high and proud. To this day, Jews do not count people directly, but instead, count heads.

There is a beautiful and uncommon blessing we say upon seeing a crowd of multitudes – חכם הרזים – the knower of secrets, which the Gemara explains as acknowledging God’s greatness in knowing each of us in our individual hearts, despite our different faces and minds. This is a subtle but vital point – God is great not because of the glory and sheer size of the crowd, but because God can see each of us as distinct within the sea of all too forgettable faces; God can see the individual within the collective.

It is a blessing in praise of the God who creates diversity in our world, rejoicing in our different minds, opinions, and thoughts. It is a blessing over Jewish pluralism. It is one thing to tolerate our differences; it is quite another to acknowledge them as a blessing. It is one thing to love Jews because we are all Jewish, that is, the same; it is quite another to love Jews because they are different from ourselves.

We cannot tolerate factionalism, where one subgroup splinters from the main group, but we cannot afford to exclude individuals. The Torah makes incredible demands of us, and we mostly fall well short, some a little more, some a little less.  We must hold ourselves to the highest standards, but we can never look down at our fellow.

To argue the other side, while we must celebrate individuality, we must not condone individualism. Our duty is to find a balance between being individuals while remaining part of the group. We need to maintain a tension between the need for individual freedom and the demands of others.

The whole idea of loving others is that they are not just like you; if you had to love people like you, that would just be loving yourself and would demand nothing of you. We must reinforce the notion of tolerance of heterogeneity, people not just like us.

Loving another is not that I care about someone in my circle who is just like me, and perhaps I have a duty to expand my conception of who is in the circle. That would be loving yourself and would demand nothing of you.  Loving another means that someone else’s problems bother me so deeply that I simply have to do something about it, and I will be lacking if I do not. The idea of loving another does not include circles – it has nothing to do with people’s similarity.

Evolutionary theory teaches that co-operation is as important for survival as competition. You’re irreplaceable and unique – but remember that we need you! The strength of the team is each individual. The strength of each individual is the team.

The idea that every Jew is worthy enough to be presented before God and the generation’s leadership, that every Jew must lift their head high, is timeless and eternal. Moreover, it teaches a broader lesson that is portable to all and covers women, children, and the elderly as well. The Jewish People are something massively monumental, yet we each have our own significant role to play. We must celebrate each other’s unique contributions while striving to do more ourselves.

This probably illuminates an interesting comment by Rashi, that the point of the census was to discern how many people had survived the plague that followed the Golden Calf debacle. The plague killed a small fraction of the total population figure given in the Torah, so it’s strange to talk in terms of “survivors” when only a few succumbed. But if we consider each individual as a core component of the Jewish People, then the Jewish People as a whole really is damaged by the loss of any single person, and the remainder truly are “survivors”.

The Baal Shem Tov taught that if the Jewish People are a Sefer Torah, then every Jew is a letter.

The Torah counts everyone. Because everyone counts.

You can be the best whistler in the world, but you can’t whistle a symphony. It takes an orchestra.

One of the painstakingly detailed aspects of the Mishkan’s planning and development is the process of materials procurement. Aside from the portions about the fundraising, the Torah includes a public ledger accounting for all sources and uses, recording where every single donation ended up.

While not exactly riveting stuff, there is a discrepancy in how the Torah accounts for the donated bronze:

וּנְחֹשֶׁת הַתְּנוּפָה שִׁבְעִים כִּכָּר וְאַלְפַּיִם וְאַרְבַּע־מֵאוֹת שָׁקֶל. וַיַּעַשׂ בָּהּ אֶת־אַדְנֵי פֶּתַח אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד וְאֵת מִזְבַּח הַנְּחֹשֶׁת וְאֶת־מִכְבַּר הַנְּחֹשֶׁת אֲשֶׁר־לוֹ וְאֵת כָּל־כְּלֵי הַמִּזְבֵּחַ. וְאֶת־אַדְנֵי הֶחָצֵר סָבִיב וְאֶת־אַדְנֵי שַׁעַר הֶחָצֵר וְאֵת כָּל־יִתְדֹת הַמִּשְׁכָּן וְאֶת־כָּל־יִתְדֹת הֶחָצֵר סָבִיב – The donated bronze came to 70 talents and 2,400 shekels. From it he made the sockets for the entrance of the Tent of Meeting; the bronze altar and it’s bronze grating and all the utensils of the altar; the sockets of the enclosure and the sockets of the gate of the enclosure; and all the pegs of the Mishkan and all the pegs of the enclosure. (38:29-31)

The Abarbanel notes that there was another bronze vessel we know of that doesn’t feature on this list, the washbasin. It is categorized separately from the main bronze accounting because this bronze didn’t come from the regular bronze operating account; it came from a wholly separate source to the rest of the general fund:

וַיַּעַשׂ אֵת הַכִּיּוֹר נְחֹשֶׁת וְאֵת כַּנּוֹ נְחֹשֶׁת בְּמַרְאֹת הַצֹּבְאֹת אֲשֶׁר צָבְאוּ פֶּתַח אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד – He made the washbasin and its stand of bronze, from the mirrors of the women who amassed at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. (38:8)

Rashi quotes a fascinating Midrash that the women of Israel wanted to donate their personal makeup mirrors to the Mishkan fund, and Moshe considered rejecting the mirrors since they are, on their face, used to satisfy the evil inclination. At that moment, God interceded and implored Moshe to readily accept the personal makeup mirrors, declaring them the dearest of all contributions. The subtext of this surprising dialogue is that when the enslaved men in Egypt were exhausted and spent after a day of backbreaking labor and abuse, they no longer wanted to be with their wives, the thought being that there would be no more children, and their misery would come to an end. To address this, the women would bring their husbands food and drink, and used these personal makeup mirrors to successfully attract their husbands back, directly resuscitating the imperiled future of the Jewish people. Rather than perceiving these actions as mere and mundane acts of the flesh, God recognized their heroic valor in the Jewish People’s great time of need.

R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch highlights the deep and symbolic significance of how as crucial a boudoir item as a personal mirror, which functions to draw attention to the human body as an object of sensual desire, can be co-opted and integrated into Divine service. Moreover, the washbasin these mirrors became specifically functions to consecrate hands and feet; our bodies are simple and mundane organic matter, yet we can elevate and refine our bodily movements and instincts by transforming our purpose. There is no separate track for holy things – we create holiness through our everyday actions and footsteps. The instruments of women trying to attract their husbands became the instrument that changes a person’s status from impure to pure. It is hard to overstate the significance of the directional flow – from impure to pure!

The discrepancy in the accounting of how the bronze was used teaches us an important and illuminating insight about the role of intimacy. It’s taboo to discuss, to the extent that it is not uncommon for people to write off the whole topic as forbidden and associate it with guilt and shame. But it’s accouterment became not just a central feature in the Mishkan, but quite plausibly the dearest donation of the lot!

It is imperative to separate what’s kosher from what’s not – and to get it right! The laws of איסורי ביאה and עריות‎ are extremely severe and have catastrophic consequences highlighted by, among others, Hoshea and Yirmiyahu. They really matter! But we must not forget that the very first commandment from God to humans is to be fruitful and multiply. The Sefer Hachinuch observes that the mitzvah’s nature is that God desires a world populated with life, which is intuitive, because we are designed to precisely that specification, along with every living thing. It’s actually a feature of being a living thing!

Judaism is extremely focused on the purity of our sexuality. Adam and Chava were created naked and felt no shame until much later in the story when they eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. There was nothing intrinsically bad about their naked bodies, and so no shame associated with it. They were living expressions of holiness in their natural state! It was only once they gained a deeper perception and understanding of good and evil that they lost this perfect clarity, and there was now a notion that sex could be immoral and so their nakedness could be shameful and embarrassing.

Nechama Leibowitz teaches that the same impulses which can lead us to destruction can just as equally lead us to sanctity – to building our families and perpetuating the future. Chazal recognized the need to serve God with our best and worse inclinations – בְּכָל־לְבָבְךָ – literally, “hearts”, plural.

While desire is categorized as stemming from the evil inclination – תאווה – we must recognize its necessity as an essential precursor to life, to the extent that the Midrash labels the evil inclination as “very good”. Like eating or drinking, it is an essential biological driving force that is integrated and synonymous with being alive, and when controlled, and channeled appropriately at the proper time and place, it can be a mitzvah.

Critically, not just “another” mitzvah – the separate treatment of the women’s personal makeup mirrors teach us that intimacy and everything associated with it can be the dearest thing there is.

One of the most tragic characters in the Torah is Moshe – his entire life was defined by conflict. While conflict is part of being a statesman fighting for the freedom and establishment of his people; he repeatedly found himself at odds with his own people countless times, with his family at others; and even with God at certain moments.

It’s interesting to see how Moshe responded each time differently.

When the people complained that they were fed up with the manna and want to eat proper meat, Moshe didn’t fight them; he was utterly overwhelmed and told God he wished he was dead.

When God told him to appoint 70 elders, Moshe was relieved and glad to share the burden. When the two men left out of the new administration, Eldad and Medad, began a prophecy predicting Moshe’s downfall, not only was Moshe not offended, he wished prophecy on all the Jewish People.

R’ Jonathan Sacks notes that the fact that Moshe was no longer alone restored his spirit and confidence entirely because a good leader is not afraid of his students.

The role of a teacher and leader is to raise and empower the influence of those around him. One of Judaism’s most remarkable ideas is that teachers are heroes too – Moshe, R’ Akiva, Hillel, and Ezra.

Leadership isn’t about titles, status, or power; it’s about taking responsibility for those we care about and putting in the work to make their lives better, helping them and challenging them to do better and be better.

R’ Samson Raphael Hirsch writes that the highest achievement for a teacher is to make himself superfluous. When the student outgrows the teacher, it’s the highest achievement, not a failure or threat.

Seventy elders and Eldad and Medad were not a threat, but Korach and his failed coup were, and on that occasion, Moshe responded forcefully.

The episode’s opening gives the game away – Korach attempted a power grab – וַיִּקַּח קֹרַח. R’ Simcha Bunim of Peshischa teaches that you cannot seize power benevolently; you can only cultivate it through public service.

R’ Tzvi Meir Silberberg charges us to be excellent wherever we are. You can make the most of it, or make more of it, but excellence isn’t transferrable. A rebranding doesn’t change the fundamentals.

R’ Shai Held notes that Moshe is only miserable when people won’t accept his help and guidance; the moment he has his seventy elders and Eldad and Medad, he is calm and at peace once again.

Right after this episode, Moshe faces another conflict; his siblings start complaining about the woman he chose to marry. After fighting everyone, his own family turns on him. And immediately after that, the Torah describes Moshe as the most humble man who ever lived.

R’ Shai Held notes that this follows from the way people treated Moshe. When everyone turned on him, and his family betrayed him, he wouldn’t turn on them and, in fact, prayed to help them.

R’ Jonathan Sacks teaches that pain causes humility, but humility can sanctify pain when channeled to public service. Moshe was the most humble man because he could love and care for people who let him down. After aiding the debacle of the formation of the Golden Calf, Ahron defended his failure by blaming the people’s wickedness, but not Moshe. Moshe stood up to them, but critically, stood up for them.

Because it was never about him; he only ever cared about helping them.

The Torah isn’t so much about God as it is about humans and how we ought to behave. This is in large part because we cannot comprehend what God is, only what God does.

One of Judaism’s fundamental beliefs is that we can change, through the ability to repair and repent – Teshuva – which presupposes that to some extent, God can also change. While this may sound absurd at first, it’s quite benign. We believe that with prayer, repentance, and charity, God might offer compassionate mercy in lieu of strict justice.

This transition from strict justice to compassionate mercy ought to be instructive to how we exercise judgment in our own lives.

The stated reason for the Flood was a human tendency towards evil:

וַיַּרְא ה, כִּי רַבָּה רָעַת הָאָדָם בָּאָרֶץ, וְכָל-יֵצֶר מַחְשְׁבֹת לִבּוֹ, רַק רַע כָּל-הַיּוֹם –  Hashem saw the great evil of humans on Earth, and that every imagination of his heart’s intent was only ever evil. (6:5)

After the Flood, God laments the destruction, and promises not destroy life ever again:

וַיֹּאמֶר ה אֶל-לִבּוֹ לֹא-אֹסִף לְקַלֵּל עוֹד אֶת-הָאֲדָמָה בַּעֲבוּר הָאָדָם, כִּי יֵצֶר לֵב הָאָדָם רַע מִנְּעֻרָיו; וְלֹא-אֹסִף עוֹד לְהַכּוֹת אֶת-כָּל-חַי, כַּאֲשֶׁר עָשִׂיתִי – Hashem said in His heart: “I will not curse the ground again for humanity’s sake; because the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth; neither will I again smite any more every living thing, as I have just done.” (8:21)

What changed between the beginning and end of the Flood?

Quite remarkably, it seems like nothing at all changed. Humans were bad before, and they are still bad after – יֵצֶר מַחְשְׁבֹת לִבּוֹ, רַק רַע כָּל-הַיּוֹם / כִּי יֵצֶר לֵב הָאָדָם רַע מִנְּעֻרָיו.

This non-change also happens when the Jewish People misguidedly craft the Golden Calf, upon which God states He can longer tolerate their obstinate rigidity:

כִּי לֹא אֶעֱלֶה בְּקִרְבְּךָ, כִּי עַם-קְשֵׁה-עֹרֶף אַתָּה פֶּן-אֲכֶלְךָ בַּדָּרֶךְ – I will not go up with you; because you are a stiff-necked people; otherwise I might destroy you on the way! (33:3)

Yet Moshe appeals for God’s compassion and mercy based on that very same characteristic:

וַיֹּאמֶר אִם-נָא מָצָאתִי חֵן בְּעֵינֶיךָ, אֲדֹנָי, יֵלֶךְ-נָא אֲדֹנָי, בְּקִרְבֵּנוּ:  כִּי עַם-קְשֵׁה-עֹרֶף הוּא, וְסָלַחְתָּ לַעֲוֹנֵנוּ וּלְחַטָּאתֵנוּ וּנְחַלְתָּנוּ – And he said: “If I have found favor in your sight, Hashem, please go in our midst; because this is a stiff-necked people; and forgive our error and sin, and take us as Your inheritance.” (34:9)

While we cannot know God, we can learn to understand God a little better by imitating what He does. In both instances, humans do not earn forgiveness through Teshuva, because they have not, or perhaps cannot change. We are prone to error and don’t always learn from our mistakes.

In the story of Noach, God does something extremely unusual and talks to Himself – וַיֹּאמֶר ה אֶל-לִבּוֹ. The power of this soliloquy teaches us that how we frame a characteristic can be the difference between strict justice and compassionate mercy. The self-same flaw God can condemn can also be excused on the same basis – כִּי.

We can’t change other people. But we can change the lens we use to scrutinize them. In the same way that God can choose to judge favorably out of a commitment to life, we can do the same.

A judgmental attitude helps neither ourselves nor others.

After the Golden Calf incident, Moshe’s asked Hashem to aid his reconciliation efforts, and Hashem taught him the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy by which God governs the world.

This formula is considered one of the core elements of teshuva, which is why it is a focal point of many prayers surrounding Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur.

When Hashem taught them to Moshe that he would forgive freely, the Gemara cryptically allegorizes that Hashem wore a Tallis, as though leading a prayer service – שליח ציבור.

What is the point of the imagery of God as a prayer leader?

R’ Moshe Einstadter explains that the function of the prayer leader is to be the agent of the community represents those who don’t know how to join in – quite literally, שליח ציבור.

In order to participate, the people who don’t know what they are doing must depend on the people who do.

The leader can pray just fine on his own, yet since people need him, his prayers have an enhanced capacity that serves his audience’s needs.

We have the same relationship dynamic with God.

We all make mistakes. We are human, and we can’t help ourselves. We are fallible! The natural state of the universe is entropy, a tendency towards disorder and chaos.

The imagery Chazal offer proposes a powerful resolution.

To save us from our own frailty and fallibility, Hashem acts exactly like a שליח ציבור by granting us the gift of being able to make amends.

Moshe’s name does not appear as part of the narrative of the Kehuna – Parshas Tetzaveh – when he probably ought to have been; what with his overseeing the entire construction and dedication of the Mishkan. Why does his name not appear?

On seeing the fallout from the Golden Calf and the ensuing plague, Moshe pleaded for mercy for the dying nation:

וְעַתָּה אִם תִּשָּׂא חַטָּאתָם וְאִם אַיִן מְחֵנִי נָא מִסִּפְרְךָ אֲשֶׁר כָּתָבְתָּ – … forgive their sin; otherwise, erase me from Your book! (32:32).

The Ba’al HaTurim explains that although this succeeded in ending the plague, a righteous man’s word is always fulfilled.

But of all the sections in the Torah, why is this specific section the one his name is redacted from?

Tetzaveh largely deals with the Kehuna, which was given to Ahron and his descendants. R’ Yakov Minkus explains Moshe and Ahron had very different personalities. Moshe brought the Torah down from Heaven, to mankind’s level. Ahron embodied humanity attaining greater status through their own cultivation, as the ultimate “people’s person”. He was a lover and pursuer of peace. This is what the entire Kehuna was given for – bridging relationships; between people, and between people and God – elevating them.

Similarly, the Gemara in Sanhedrin concludes that there are two equally valid ways to settle litigation; judgement, or compromise. The fact that each are valid settlements shows that both are independently potent at achieving their goal. Moshe represented strict justice, and issued rulings for disputes, whereas Ahron represented compromise.

The role of the kohen is to play the arbiter, the middle man and mediator. As a man of the people, he is meant to feel their emotions, guide them through the services in the Beis HaMikdash.

If the two ways are equally valid, it is fair to say that they should not impinge each other, and when introducing the validity and importance of Ahron’s method, the inclusion of Moshe and his methods would actually devalue it somewhat.

Various times where Ahron and Moshe are involved, the Torah alternates who is mentioned first – illustrating their equality. Granted that Moshe was the greatest man to walk this earth – but their approaches in resolving problems people had with each other and with God was equally important.