The Torah begins this week’s parsha by instructing Moshe to take a census of Bnei Yisrael. The Ramban delineates several purposes for this census. The most obvious: to know how many men there were for an army. A second purpose was to demonstrate Hashem’s beneficence. Bnei Yisrael had gone down to Egypt with a mere seventy souls and now numbered over 600,000. A third purpose, which also addresses why the census had to be taken by Moshe himself and not delegated to subordinates, was to give each member of Bnei Yisrael a few private moments with the Gadol HaDor.
The Shela HaKadosh, as quoted in various compendia, relates a deep psychological insight with respect to the census. The nature of a national counting underscores the fact that every single person counts. This realization has a major impact on those being counted. As each one was counted, it became clear that his existence and actions meant something. He was part of something great. (This realization becomes even more pronounced in light of the Ramban’s comments that each person had private time with Moshe. What better way to make a person feel special and relevant than to meet with his manhig.)
This notion of counting for something takes on even greater meaning by virtue of the rabbinic tradition that each person should view the fate of the world as perfectly balanced between good and evil. If a person does even one good deed he saves the world. If, G-d forbid, he does even one bad deed he condemns the world. The Shela argues that each person, upon being counted as an individual, took to heart this rabbinic dictum. He realized that to a certain degree the future of the world depended on him and his actions. Such a feeling beckons a person to become a leader.
Shortly before Pesach I had the opportunity to see this phenomenon first hand. I was privileged to be one of the chaperones who accompanied our students on a heritage trip to Poland. It was a very moving experience for all of us. One of the most powerful and painful moments was when we entered the gas chamber in the Majdanek death camp, literally just outside of Lublin. Standing there in the middle of the gas chamber our guide pointed out the scratch marks on the walls people made as they tried to claw their way to the top of the room (since the gas rose from the floor to the ceiling murdering those closest to the floor first).
One student told me afterwards how he found scratch marks right where he placed his own hand and imagined himself in that very spot 70 years ago. When the 60 of us sang Schweky’s V’hi Sheamda there was not a dry eye in the chamber. But what struck me most was the comment of one of the young men as we left the building. I saw that he was very deep in thought. As we began talking a little he finally articulated his question. Why did we merit exiting the gas chamber alive when so many others did not?
While he could not answer his own question on a theological level (as humans we cannot understand Hashem’s reasoning) after some discussion he came up with a practical answer. If we merited exiting the gas chamber then we have to earn that freedom. It must be that G-d has a mission for us to do and our responsibility is to fulfill that mission.
The Rambam writes in Moreh Nevuchim (II:45) that the entry level of prophecy is the internal calling a person gets to help his people and in essence to make the world a better place. This young man, as well as the many other students with him, certainly understood the point of this Rambam that day at Majdanek. The first step to becoming a leader is the self-awareness and acknowledgement that as individuals we can each make a difference. The second step is to answer the clarion call, stop being a spectator and get involved.