Parashas Bamidbar

Parashas Bamidbar describes how the Jewish People encamped during their sojourn in the wilderness, “each man by his banner according to the insignias of their fathers’ households” (Bamidbar 2:1). The Midrash expounds (Bamidbar Rabbah 2:4):
Holy and lofty were the Jewish People in their formation marked with banners. And all the nations of the world looked upon them in wonder and declared (Shir HaShirim 6:10): “Who is this who gazes down like the dawn, beautiful as the moon, clear as the sun, awesome as an army with banners?” They said to the Jewish People (ibid. 7:1): “Turn aside, turn aside, O Shulammite.” They beckoned to them: “Cleave to us, come be with us, and we will make you rulers, commanders, officers, prefects, and governors.” They continued (continuing in the verse): “Turn aside, turn aside, so that we can look you over.” Here, “look you over” means to identify people for positions of power. As Yisro said to Moshe (Shemos 18:21): “And you look over all the people and appoint able men.”
The Jewish People replied (continuing in Shir HaShirim 7:1): “What will you see in the Shulammite, like the dance of the camps (מחולת המחניים)?” They were saying: “What greatness are you proposing to give us? Could it be the greatness of מחולת המחניים? Could you possibly bestow upon us greatness like that which God bestowed upon us in the wilderness, where we had the banner of the camp of Yehudah, the banner of the camp of Reuven, the banner of the camp of Dan, and the banner of the camp of Ephraim? … Could you possibly bestow upon us greatness like that which God bestowed upon us in the wilderness, where whenever we sinned, God would forgive (מוחל) us and say to us, ‘your camp shall be holy’ (Devarim 23:15)?”  
The Maggid sets out to explain this Midrash. We know, he says, that the power of one who brings merit to the public at large is great beyond measure. Regarding such a person, the Sages say in Avos 5:18 that the merit of the public at large is attributed to him. The opposite is true of a person who leads the general public to sin. If a person commits a sin, and others see him and commit the same sin, it is a serious matter – this is one of the things that, as the Mishnah says, precludes repentance. It is, in Shlomo HaMelech’s words (Koheles 1:15), a “perversion that cannot be remedied,” like the case discussed in Yevamos 22b of a person who cohabits with another man’s wife and produces thereby a child who is a mamzer. For what will it help for the person to repent if his sinning has borne the bitter fruit of similar sinning by others?
It is in this vein that Torah exhorts (Devarim 23:15): “Your camp shall be holy, so that he will not see a shameful thing among you.” That is, your neighbor in the tent next to yours should not see you do a shameful thing and be led to do likewise. [In the context of Devarim 23:15, the word “he” refers to Hashem, but the Maggid is reading it homiletically as referring to one’s neighbor.] We must be exceedingly careful not to sin in the sight of others, lest our sinning propagate among the community. A parenthetical note in the commentary adds a further point: If a person wishes to involve himself with the general public, to lead them in the ways of serving Hashem, he must take care first to perfect himself and make himself trustworthy and wholehearted in his own conduct and service to Hashem. Thus, David HaMelech declares (Tehillim 26:12): “My foot is set on the straight path; in assemblies I shall bless Hashem.” A person must first set his foot on the straight path, and only then can he promote Hashem’s honor among the multitudes.
In Shir HaShirim 7:1, the nations of the world beckon to us to cleave to them and assume positions of power, saying that our exemplary conduct will inspire them to adopt our good ways, and thereby we will earn the great merit of bringing merit to the public at large. We decline the invitation, out of fear that the errors we make will lead them astray, making it hard for us to gain Hashem’s forgiveness for these errors. This is what the Midrash means when it describes us as asking the nations: “Could you possibly bestow upon us greatness like that which God bestowed upon us in the wilderness, where whenever we sinned, God would forgive us?” We mention how Hashem warned us to make sure that “your camp shall be holy,” and that no one should see us commit any improper act. And we ask the nations: “What will you see in the Shulammite? Will you focus on the good deeds we do and learn from them, or will you be led astray by the errors we commit in your presence?”
David Zucker, Site Administrator

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