The Elite and the Masses – Rav Shames
Sefer Bamidbar paints a very real and yet not very flattering picture of our nation. We read about episode after episode of complaining, revolt and undermining the new structure of the society. I suppose this is not surprising, as any group of people need to navigate their individual needs and figure out how to create a union to function as a solidified nation (in a word- not much has ever changed in the world of politics).
However if we take a closer look I think that we can notice different layers of conflict, strife and eventual reconciliation throughout the Sefer.
I think that there are two important terms that are used each one highlighting a different group and therefore a different type of challenge.
The first is “Nasi”, the modern day translation of this word is “President”, but as we will see it was used in the Torah to denote an individual of high rank (not necessarily the top of the pyramid). This term is used by the locals Hittetes in reference to Avraham Avenu when he was negotiating for the Mearat Hamachpelah. It also appears once in Sefer Vayikra in the discussion of a special sacrifice that must be brought by such an individual as opposed to one of the masses.
Except for one reference in Sefer Shemot all of the rest of the uses of this word appear in Sefer Bamidbar.
- Those that were to assist Moshe in the census (1:16)
- Those that brought the special offering during the inauguration of the Mishkan (Perek 7)
- Those that were sent to spy the land (13:2)
- The 250 who rebelled against Moshe in this week’s parsha (16:2)
- The title of Zimri who sinned with the Midanite woman (25:14,18)
- Those who met the returning warriors after the battle with Midyan (31:13)
- Those who were approached by the tribes of Gad and Reuven (32:2)
- Those who were to assist in the apportioning of the land (Perek 34)
In other words Bamidbar in its entirety can be referred to the Book of the Nessiim.
The repetition of the term Nasi throughout the Sefer leads me to believe that the Book is actually about them, the Nessiim more than anyone else. The middle level leadership was newly established and groping to find its way and extent of its mandate. They are stuck in a very delicate position between the will of the people and the reign of authority. In some cases they appear as the governors, assisting the central powers (the census, the spies and the arbitrators of the inheritance issues). In other cases they serve as ceremonial heads of their constituents (the inaugural ceremonies).
Parshat Korach underscores the same theme. The uprising and rebellion against Moshe was understandable from the perspective of the man on the street. The multiple “jobs” that Moshe had arranged for himself and his close family really did smack of nepotism, and it is not so surprising to have the masses question the situation.
The problem is that the objection was raised by the leadership, the 250 Nessiim. (By the way, it obvious that this is not an official title “Nasi” as many of the lists of the nessiim differ one from the next and in our parsha we encounter 250 of them!! as opposed to the standard 12).
These are people that already have a public role, they are in leadership positions and are influential. It is precisely their special status that makes the crime all the more severe.
It is of course ironic that the battle cry that they raise is “the entire nation is holy, why do you make yourselves superior to them all”. The claim seems to be a very democratic one, we are all equals, we are all holy. In fact they do not question the caste system, rather they claim a bigger piece of the pie. It is interesting to note the use of the word תתנשאו “makes yourselves superior”. The root of the word is indeed “Nasi”, as if to say why have you usurped our authority, our privileges, how could you “out-nasi” a nasi?
I find it interesting that as soon as the drama subsides, in that parsha, we are given certain mitzvoth that are meant to bolster the status of the “chosen” ones. The opening line of Perek 18 tells the Kohanim that they must bear the the burden of the Mikdash and of the Kehuna. In both instances the Torah refers to the bearing of this grave responsibility asתשאו from the same root as Nasi. The message being clear- Authority implies responsibility. There should be no concept of pure rights disconnected from the responsibility that goes along with them.
The second term that is used extensively is “AM” (the nation). We find the term in reference to the masses. In this case the challenge is altogether different.
What challenges were they able to weather? Where did they fail? In our reading we generally find their weakness shining through. They complain about an array of things and never seem to be satisfied (I beg their forgiveness for being so judgmental, I am positive that it was very difficult to cope in the desert environment where even the most basic of human needs could be provided for only through miracles).
In our parsha, Balak, we find the term used 14 different times (7 before Bilaam begins to speak and another 7 in his curses/blessings and the aftermath). The focal point of the “attack” of Balak is the AM- the nation. While he is unable to pierce their armor with the tongue of Billam, he is very successful using the daughters of his nation to entice the AM. (Please read 25:1-4 and notice that the term AM is used 4 times in the span of 4 pessukim, some of the times in a very strained manner).
So far we have seen the challenges of the Nessiim and the challenges of the AM. At the very end of the parsha these two elements merge. We read of “one of the masses” who commits the public sin with the Midyanite women. This incident is an obvious continuation of the moral breakdown of the AM, and that is how our Parsha ends.
It is only next week that we find out that what seemed to belong to the AM section is actually part of the Nasi section. We are given the identity of the people involved and it is none other than a Nasi. The incident with Zimri was a scandalous event regardless of the identity of the parties. The fact that it was a high ranking individual only added insult to injury. While it is clear that the entire (male) population was at fault, what is shocking that such a flagrant offense came from the Nasi of the tribe!!
It seems that the characters may change and the challenges may be different but each and every individual, regardless of their station in life, has the hurdles that they must be able to leap.