Torah Insights from the Chasam Sofer on Parshas Bamidbar


1. One Census, Two Meanings

שְׂאוּ אֶת ראש כל עדת בני ישראל

Count the heads of the entire assembly of the Children of Israel (1:2)

The term used for “count the heads” is שְׂאוּ אֶת ראש, which literally means raise the head. This indicates that the census served to elevate the Jewish people and ascribe greatness to them. However, the Midrash (Bamidbar Rabbah 1:11; cited by Ramban to v. 3) notes that שאו את ראש can also mean, remove the head, as in the verse (Bereishis 40:19), יִשא פרעה את מעליך ותלה אותך על העץ, Pharaoh will remove your head from you and hang you on a tree. According to this interpretation, our verse alludes to the fact that the men counted in this census were destined to die in the Wilderness, as punishment for the sin of the Spies. Ramban asks, however: Since the simple meaning of the phrase שאו את ראש follows its positive connotation of “raise the head,” why does the Midrash interpret it in a negative manner?

We may resolve this by noting that when the Torah excludes the Leviim from the count, it states (1:49): אך את מטה לוי לא תפקד ואת ראשם לא תשא, which seems to mean, But the tribe of Levi you shall not count “and their head you shall not raise.” Now, if שאו את ראש denotes “elevation,” why would the Torah exclude the Leviim from being counted and gaining this blessing? The Midrash therefore reasons that שאו את ראש must also carry the negative connotation of “remove the head.” Because the Leviim were dedicated to Hashem’s service, Hashem said, ואת ראשם לא תשא, which according to the Midrash means, and their head you shall not remove. They were excluded from the decree of death that would ultimately be imposed on all those counted in this census (Toras Moshe HaShalem, p. 1, ד”ה שאו את ראש כל עדת בני ישראל).

2. Seeing the Good

             As mentioned, the phrase שאו את ראש can be interpreted “remove the head.” While this interpretation seems negative, it actually contains a positive message as well, and complements the message of elevation and grandeur conveyed by “raise the head.”

What was the reason for the census? The apparent reason was that Moshe and the Nesiim needed to determine the number of people in each tribe so that Eretz Yisrael could be divided fairly among the tribes. The time of this census was appropriate for that purpose, because at this point the Jewish people had not yet committed the sin of the Spies, and they were ready to travel to Eretz Yisrael.

However, Hashem knew in advance that the Jews would eventually commit the sin of the Spies and that this generation would therefore die in the Wilderness. Thus, the people counted in this census would not not enter Eretz Yisrael and would not divide the Land. Obviously, then, the division of the Land cannot have been Hashem’s reason for commanding Moshe to take the census. What, though was His reason? It is, as Rashi explains, that Hashem wanted to count the Jews simply to demonstrate His love for them.

This idea is alluded to in the double meaning of the phrase, שאו את ראש. The literal meaning is raise the head, but according to the Midrash it means remove the head. The latter interpretation is negative only on a superficial level. In truth, though, it contains the basis of the positive interpretation. The expression remove the head alludes that Hashem knew that those counted in this census would die in the Wilderness. But if they would not live to divide the Land, why did Hashem want them to be counted? It must be because He loves them. In this sense, the census is an elevation for the Jews and serves to raise their head! It is thus the negative meaning that makes us realize the message contained in the positive meaning: Hashem counts the Jews because He loves each and every one of them (Toras Moshe HaShalem, p. 1, ד”ה שאו את ראש א).

In Memory of
R’ Yakov ben R’ Shmuel Yosef
and R’ Shimon ben R’ Moshe ע”ה
© Copyright 2019 by MESORAH PUBLICATIONS, Ltd.

To download a printable copy click here: Chasam Sofer – Bamidbar

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