It is amazing how the Torah sometimes subtly relays multiple messages- often even contradictory messages-at once, in order to convey a nuanced approach to crucially important issues.
At the beginning of this week’s Parsha, Hashem commands Moshe to take a census of the Jewish nation, through a half-shekel donation from each individual. Numerous questions are raised by the meforshim regarding the details of this directive- and many beautiful lessons are derived from various aspects of the counting.
Rashi, in Bamidmar 1:1, points out that this counting was obviously not done for the sake of Hashem’s knowledge (as God clearly knows the peoples’ number without actually counting them); but for the sake of the nation itself. Hashem commands the census in order to show His love for every member of the Jewish People. The image that is invoked is of a jeweler, who counts his jewels often because of each jewel’s individual worth- so too, G-d periodically counts His people in order to show How much he values every member of Am Yisrael. On a fundamental level, therefore, the census was designed to instill within each and every member of the nation an inherent sense of their own self-worth; to remind them that in G-d’s eyes, every single person “counts”. In keeping with this theme, some commentaries note that the phrase used by G-d in the commandment concerning the census is “כי תשא”- which literally mean “when you will raise.” The act of counting each member of klal Yisrael was ultimately meant to raise each individual up; to highlight that individual’s uniqueness and importance within the overall Jewish nation.
At the same time, the census conveyed a different, contrasting message as well. Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch comments on the particular manner in which the census was taken- through individual donations of a half shekel towards the building of the mishkan. Why, asks Rav Hirsch, did Hashem specifically command the collection of a half shekel from each participant, as opposed to a full shekel? Rav Hirsch answers that G-d specifically commands the collection of a half-shekel from each person in order to subtly convey the crucial lesson that, alone, no individual is fully complete- only in partnering with others can a person truly become whole.
Among the beautiful messages emerging from this commanded census, therefore, are two lessons that converge to provide a thoughtful and nuanced approach to our place within the Jewish nation and society as a whole. On a basic level, the concept of a national census reminds each and every individual of their own importance and worth- G-d and Judaism cherish the contributions of each individual to the Jewish nation and to the world at large. And yet, embedded within that very crucial message is the added reminder that, as important as each person is; we, alone, are limited in what we can accomplish. Only when we move beyond ourselves and partner with others can we truly reach our potential.
Rabbi Simcha Bunim of P’shischa is known to have said that everyone must have two pockets, each with a note inside it. On one note should be the phrase “Bishvili nivra ha-olam”, “The world was created for me” (a quote from the Gemara Sanhedrin 37b), and on the other note should be written “V’anochi afar v’efer”, “I am but dust and ashes” (a quote from Avraham Avinu in Bereishit 18:27). Each person is charged to recognize his/her importance and infinite value. Each of us has a unique contribution to make to the Jewish people and the world at large. At the same time, we must balance that feeling of self-worth with a healthy dose of humility, and an understanding of our limitations as individuals.
Many studies have noted a sharp rise in anxiety, depression and low self-esteem in children and teens over the past 20 years. Prominently identified among the possible sources of this unfortunate phenomenon, is the rise in use of smartphones/devices and social media. Children today are spending much more time in front of devices, and much less time interacting in person with others. This tendency inevitably leads to a greater sense of unconscious, existential loneliness. In addition, the realities of social media; the bullying, social pressure, and social comparison inherent therein; cause many children to develop issues concerning their self-esteem.
Given the challenging reality within which we are tasked to raise our children, it is imperative that we spend much time, thought, and energy cultivating within our children a deep sense of their inherent self-worth and value. From an early age, we must constantly impress upon them their importance- and how much we, and G-d, treasure their unique place within the Jewish people, and their potential contributions to the world. Much effort should be placed upon helping our children realize and internalize that their inherent value comes from within- and is not dependent upon outside approval or recognition. While the realities of social stressors and peer pressures are inevitable, and a clear part of natural maturation; the more successful we are in laying a foundation of self-esteem within our children early on, the better equipped they will be to withstand the challenges to come.
At the same time- while it is clear that our main focus should be to raise our kids with a large dose of self-confidence, we must also strive to balance that self-confidence with a healthy measure of humility. As our children grow up in the “selfie” and “I” generation, we are tasked with helping them appreciate the limitations of the individual, and how much more they can become when they partner with others.
There is no simple way to instill both of these messages simultaneously. But as a first step, we should communicate that the two are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Our children can be taught to recognize their own inherent importance and uniqueness and, at the same time, to realize they are only truly complete when they connect with those outside of themselves, within the larger context of their community and people.
Immediately after the receiving of the Torah and becoming a nation, G-d commands the leaders of Am Yisrael to count the nation- and the details of this commandment relay a subtle and nuanced message of which we, as parents, must be constantly aware. G-d counts His people often to show the importance of each and every member of the Jewish nation. At the same time, by using a half-shekel as the method of counting, He impresses upon the people the limitation of the individual, that we are complete only when we partner with those around us.