One of the first messages presented in Sefer BeMidbar is the importance of learning from and appreciating the previous generations. This idea is first expressed in the beginning of the Parashah with the second census of the Jewish people. Hashem commands Bnei Yisrael to register for the census, “LeMishpechotam LeVeit Avotam,” “By their families, by their father’s houses” (BeMidbar 1:2). The Yalkut Shimoni (684) comments that this Pasuk indicates that when Hashem gave the Torah to Bnei Yisrael, the nations of the world complained to Him, asking why why Am Yisrael received the Torah rather than them. Hashem pointed to these family records in the census as our Zechut, merit, to receive the Torah. This explanation of the Pasuk teaches that as a nation worthy of receiving the Torah due to our Zechut Avot, we must understand the importance of the previous generations and be committed to the Mesorah, tradition, that they passed down to us.
In further describing the census, the Torah requires Bnei Yisrael to be counted, “BeMispar Sheimot LeGulgelotam,” “By number of the names, every male according to their head count” (1:2). The implication of this Pasuk is that there is a prohibition against counting people by numbers (Rashi ad loc. s.v. LeGulgelotam); the Torah is teaching us that we cannot count a member of Am Yisrael, since we emphasize the importance of unity rather than individuality. This idea is expressed at Har Sinai where we were united, “KeIsh Echad BeLeiv Echad,” “As one person with one heart” (Rashi Shemot 19:2 s.v. VaYichan Sham Yisrael).
This strength in unity must be an extension of us in both our spiritual and worldly dealings. Rashi (2:2 s.v. BeOtot) explains that the color of each tribe’s banner corresponded to the color of that Sheivet’s stone on the Kohein Gadol’s breatplate. The Midrash (BeMidbar Rabbah 2) links, “KeChol Asher Tzivah Hashem Et Moshe,” “All that Hashem commanded Moshe” (1:54), stated in connection to the banners, to that same phrase in connection with building of the Mishkan (Shemot 39:32). The Midrash learns from here that the banners were as beloved to Hashem as the Mishkan. It was under these banners which Bnei Yisrael went to war to conquer Eretz Yisrael, yet it had to be consistent with the color on the breastplate. Even in difficult situations like war, we must conduct ourselves with the values of the Mishkan, which represents the spiritual values to which we aspire under ideal circumstances. What Hashem requires from us is that we internalize Torah lessons and values so that they guide our worldly actions.
A further link in this Parashah to the previous generations is the idea of constancy and change in supporting and transmitting the Mesorah. This can be seen symbolically in the commandment to the Kohanim to insert poles to transport the Keilim of the Mishkan, including the Aron (BeMidbar 4:6). However, we know from earlier in the Torah (Shemot 25:15) that the poles of the Aron are never to be removed; how can this apparent contradiction be reconciled? Some suggest that there was a second set of poles used strictly for transportation. Others posit that the poles and connections became loose and needed to be strengthened. By synthesizing both perspectives, we can learn an extremely valuable lesson. The poles are the supporters of the Mishkan, the center for a Torah lifestyle which must always be constant throughout the generations. However, in Galut, we face many trials and adversities, and there is frequently a need to transport our Torah to adapt to new places and circumstances. In those difficult times, there is a need for a “second set of poles” for ourselves. People need to utilize their particular strengths in order to ensure the continuity of the Torah’s centrality to our lives. We must make sure that our Torah centers and institutions which unite us do not loosen and weaken so we can aspire to be a people “KeIsh Echad BeLeiv Echad.”