The joker in town approached a little wise Jewish boy, Hersheleh, and says: I will give you a ruble if you tell me a lie right here on the spot!
To which Hersheleh responds: You said you would give me two!
In this week’s portion, the Torah describes the ceremony by which the Levites were formally consecrated for service in the Sanctuary. G-d describes the selection process as follows:
יט. וָאֶתְּנָה אֶת הַלְוִיִּם נְתֻנִים לְאַהֲרֹן וּלְבָנָיו מִתּוֹךְ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לַעֲבֹד אֶת עֲבֹדַת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּאֹהֶל מוֹעֵד וּלְכַפֵּר עַל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְלֹא יִהְיֶה בִּבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל נֶגֶף בְּגֶשֶׁת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶל הַקֹּדֶשׁ:
I have given the Levites as a gift to Aaron and his sons from among the children of Israel, to perform the service for the children of Israel in the Tent of Meeting, and to atone on behalf of the children of Israel, so that the children of Israel will not be inflicted with plague, when the children of Israel approach the Sanctuary.
Do you notice what is peculiar and awkward about this verse? In one paragraph, defying all laws of syntax, grammar, diction, and proper writing, the Torah employs the term “Children of Israel” FIVE times. Instead of using the term once, and then writing “they,” it repeats this title five times.
Rashi presents a lovely interpretation, one that has inspired our people for centuries:
ואתנה וגו': חמשה פעמים נאמר בני ישראל במקרא זה, להודיע חבתן שנכפלו אזכרותיהן במקרא אחד כמנין חמשה חומשי תורה, וכך ראיתי בבראשית רבה:
“The children of Israel” is mentioned five times in this verse, thus declaring the affection [G-d has] for them, for their mention is repeated in one verse as many times as the five books of the Torah.”
The use of the phrase “high five”—the high five is a celebratory hand gesture that occurs when two people simultaneously raise one hand, about head high, and push, slide or slap the flat of their palm against the palm of their partner—as a noun has been part of the Oxford English Dictionary since 1980 and as a verb since 1981. Yet even “high five” originates in Torah. Where? Right here in this verse, the Torah gives a “high five” to the Children of Israel, repeating their name five times in one verse, comparing them to the five books of Moses.
But there are two questions: 1) Why suddenly here? Why in the middle of the book of Numbers, while discussing the service of the Levites in the Sanctuary, does G-d “remind” us that he loves His people? 2) The significance of mentioning them five times, Rashi explains, is to compare them to the five books of the Torah. But of what significance is it that G-d repeats the term "Benei Yisrael" the same number of times as the number of the Torah books? What is the message being conveyed behind this particular praise?
Love of Truth
The Chidushei HaRim (Rabbi Yitzchak Meir Altar of Gur) presents a beautiful answer:
Let us take a closer look at what is happening at this point in Israel’s history. One group of people, the tribe is Levi, has been singled out for a unique vocation: to perform the Divine service in the sanctuary. Now, this position belonged previously to the first born of each family (the “bechorim”), as discussed at length in the portion of Bamidbar. Now it was taken from them and given to the Levites. After the sin of the Golden Calf, with the only tribe abstaining and fighting for the truth was Levi, the spiritual service was taken from the first born and given to the Levits.
The Gift of Leadership
Now, the Talmud makes an incredible observation:
מנחות קט, ב: תניא אמר ר' יהושע בן פרחיה בתחלה כל האומר עלה לה אני כופתו ונותנו לפני הארי עתה כל האומר לי לירד ממנה אני מטיל עליו קומקום של חמין שהרי שאול ברח ממנה וכשעלה בקש להרוג את דוד.
Rabbi Yehoshua ben Perachya said, "In the beginning, had someone told me go assume a position of leadership, I would have bound and set him in front of a lion. Now that I achieved a high position, anyone who would tell me to give it up and descend from it, I would pour a pitcher of hot water over him.
Consider the story of King Saul: First he fled from the position of royalty. But one he became king, he wishes to kill David out of fear that he will usurp his position.
This is a vital insight. Leadership illicits a deep chord in the human psyche; it triggers a “note” which the mystics called “Malchus,” royalty. A certain fuse of the human soul is ignited you when you are elevated to a position of leadership. Leaving that behind is painful.
And this is exactly what happened in this story: The Bechurim, the oldest members of each Jewish family, were in a position of spiritual leadership. Now, they were instructed to give it all up, transferring the mantle to the Levites.
And yet, astoundingly, we find no mutiny, rebellion, not even a protest, or outcry. For a nation that did not stop bickering and protesting, for a nation that would produce a Korach who would protest the positions of Moses and Aaron, it is fascinating that the first born accepted this transfer with grace and peace of mind, and the entire people of Israel embraced it with serenity.
Why not? The answer consists of one word: Truth.
The first born, and the Jews at large, realized the truth: The position belongs to the Levites, and it would be best performed by them. What mattered was not personal agendas, but truth. The Levites as a tribe professed a level of loyalty, dedication and commitment, and the courage to stand up for truth, and hence would do the job best.
It is this quality that G-d is praising, by mentioning the Jewish people five times in one verse, comparing them to the five books of the Torah. What is the core uniqueness of Torah? The answer is one words: Truth. “Asher nasan lanu Toras Emes,” we recite in the blessing after the reading of the Torah. “He gave us a Torah of Truth.” The key ingredient of Torah is Truth. It is interested in nothing else but truth. It speaks the truth, it demands the truth, it asks of us to live up to truth.
Its truth—like all truth—is sometimes harsh. Torah spares no one. Even its own writer and greatest hero, Moses, is not spared by Torah. Adam, Abraham, Moses, and King David—everyone is depicted in Torah with full truth. Their heroism and shortcoming (of course relative to their sublime and lofty spiritual level), their positive actions and their errors (again relative to their level), are all portrayed in Torah unflinchingly. The Torah will not bend truth for the sake of making people feel good. It will show empathy but never deceive you into thinking you are doing the right thing when you are destroying yourself.
And it is this truth that Torah demands of its students. One of the most inspiring components in Talmud study is noticing the intellectual integrity of the Talmudic sages. What matters in every discussion in the entire Talmud is one thing and one thing only: the truth. Sages may have maintained a position for decades, yet when they discovered their error, they retract their position, because it is against the truth.
The Talmud relates this story:
פסחים כב: שמעון העמסוני, ואמרי לה נחמיה העמסוני, היה דורש כל אתין שבתורה, כיון שהגיע ל"את ה' אלהיך תירא" פירש. אמרו לו תלמידיו: רבי, כל אתין שדרשת מה תהא עליהם? אמר להם: כשם שקבלתי שכר על הדרישה, כך קבלתי על הפרישה. עד שבא רבי עקיבא ולימד: את ה' אלהיך תירא—לרבות תלמידי חכמים.
Shimon the Imsonite—others state, Nechemiah the Imsonite—used to interpret every 'eth' in the Torah, but when he came to the verse You shall fear [eth] the Lord your G-d, he retracted. His disciples said to him: "Master, what is to become of all the ethin you have interpreted?" He replied, "Just as I received reward for the exposition, so I will receive reward for the retraction." When Rabbi Akiva, however, came, he taught: “You shall fear eth the Lord your G-d” implies that the scholarly disciples are also to be feared.
Shimon the Amsonite said these words to his probably stunned disciples who just observed a life-long search go up in flames: “Just as I received reward for the exposition, so I will receive reward for the retraction." How majestic a response! I I am not here to make a name for myself; I am here to search for truth. And if the truth proves me wrong, I am happy to communicate this as well. If the truth wins, I have won. I have been rewarded. To be defeated by truth is the only defeat that spells a victory.
Reb Chaim’s Lecture
Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik (1903-1993) related an incident involving his grandfather, the famous Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik, known as Reb Chaim Brisker (1853-1918). When Reb Chaim Solovteichik started saying Torah discourses in the famed Lithuanian Volozhin Yeshiva, some young, brilliant but arrogant students complained that Reb Chaim was unworthy of teaching in that Yeshiva. Who is this Reb Chaim anyway? They believed that he only received the position because he married the granddaughter of the Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berln, known as the Netziv.
The resolution of this "complaint" was that the yeshiva brought in three great Torah scholars to rule whether Rabbi Chaim was worthy to give lectures in Volozhin. (One of these great men was Rabbi Yitzchak Elchanan Spektor, the famed Rabbi of the Lithuanian city of Kovne).
The students, some of them great minds, prepared for intellectual “war.” They prepared themselves well on the subject he would discuss. They were determined to “bring him down.”
Reb Chaim began a shiur on the subject of Aylonis (an adult woman without the signs of maturity in terms of her haclchik status) in the Talmudic Tractate Yevomos and was in the middle of reconciling a difficult passage of Rambam in his Mishna Torah (Maimonides in his code of law.)
In middle of the presentation, Reb Chaim remembered something. He recalled a statement from the Rambam's commentary to the Mishnah, in which the Rambam seemingly advanced a position that was inconsistent with the whole approach that Reb Chaim was trying to develop.
In front of the three sages, present to determine if he was fit for the prestigious job, Reb Chaim gave a bang on his lectern and said, "The shiur that I had prepared is false. My hypothesis was wrong, the Rambam says otherwise in his Mishnah Commentary." He left the lectern.
Some of the students attempted to show that his hypothesis was not wrong; that the contradiction can be reconciled. But Reb Chaim said: All your ideas are sharp answers, but not true answers. I have made a mistake. My lecture was built on a mistaken premise.
Reb Chaim sat down.
His enemies were thrilled. He was defeated. He admitted his own ineptness. Yet to their shock the three great rabbis concluded, "He is worthy to be a Rosh Yeshiva in Volozhin." Any person who cares about the truth so much that he is willing to suffer the embarrassment of having to admit his own mistake for the sake of truth, is definitely worthy to be a Rosh Yeshiva in Volozhin.
To be a Torah personality, to be a Torah Jew, does not mean to be perfect. It means first and foremost to be a man of truth. To never ever lie. Not to others and not to yourself. It means to demand of yourself the highest and deepest levels of integrity, to be committed to the complete “emes,” truth, and to nothing but the truth.
In the words of the Tzemach Tzedek, the third Lubavitcher Rebbe, in his book “Sefer Hachakirah,” a work on Jewish philosophy:
אהוב את אריסטו, אהוב את סיקריטוס, אהוב את אפלטון, אבל אהוב את האמת יותר מכולם.
“Love Aristotle, Love Socrates, Love Plato. But love the truth more than all of them.”
The Quality of Truth
This is the quality of the Jewish people conveyed in this verse. Truth is the most valuable commodity in life. Because it is reality; it is real. When the Jewish people realized the seed was not growing, the firstborn can’t do the job, instead of lying to themselves and to others and saying, “let’s maintain the façade,” they exposed the barren seed, and declared: Time to move on; time to bring in the Levites. It is this quality that conferred upon our people the number of the five books of the Torah—the Torah of truth.
It is true in each of our lives: Only when you become completely honest with your own condition and reality, confessing that your seed has grown nothing, can you truly make something of yourself and become a genuine source of leadership and inspiration to yourself and others.
What happened to this obsession with truth in the political leadership and in the media today? The entire purpose of media is to tell the true story. Yet we painfully wonder what happened with the search for truth concerning Jihad, Israel, morality, abortion, transgender, Trump, and issues concerning the future of civilization?
We are witnessing a culture in which even media outlets are often ready to eclipse or partially ignore aspects of truth for all types of considerations, chief among them is a lack of respect for truth.
The value of truth is no more—unless each and every one of us will stand up for truth. It begins in our own lives, and it continues to influence communities around us.
1 Rashi concludes: I saw this in Genesis Rabbah [3:5]. Note that this is not found in Gen. Rabbah, but in Leviticus Rabbah 2:4.
2 See Talmud Bava Kama 92, as explained at length in Sichas Shabbos Eikev 5748.
3 There may be another hint in the comparison to the five books of the Chumash: Although the Torah divides into five sections, it nevertheless constitutes one, single entity. There is one Torah, not five. Similarly, although the Levits had a unique position, the Jews understood that we are still one. We all together form a single, indivisible nation. The nation is one, and no faction may consider itself inherently superior to any other, even though each one serves G-d in its own unique way.
Ironically, this very same principle prompted the disastrous rebellion led by Korach, as we will read in two weeks. Korach and his followers argued that "the entire nation - they are all sacred," and thus challenged the authority of Moshe and Aaron. The rebels failed to realize that equality does not negate the need for authority. Rather, it means that regardless of where one stands on the hierarchy, he ultimately possesses the same, inherent value as everyone else above and below. It means that both the leaders and their constituents share equal responsibility and must view themselves as equally important in the formation and functioning of society.