Respecting Boundaries by Rabbi Benny Berlin

The Torah in Parashat Bamidbar tells of the census which God commanded Moshe to conduct before Bnei Yisrael’s departure from Har Sinai. Moshe was commanded to count the males aged twenty and above, and to conduct a separate census counting the male Leviyim from the age of one month (3:15).

Rashi (3:16), citing the Midrash Tanchuma, comments that the command to count even the infant sof the tribe of Levi posed a logistical problem: “Moshe said before the Almighty: How will I enter all their houses and into their tents to know the number of their young children?” God replied by instructing Moshe to stand at the entrance of every Levite tent, and God would then prophetically inform Moshe of the number of family members living in that home.

Rabbi David Silverberg makes a beautiful point on this Midrash. He remarks that it is perhaps significant that the Midrash could not even conceive of the possibility of Moshe entering the Leviyim’s tents in order to obtain information needed for the census. A census underscores thecollective nature of the group, the fact that all members of the group blend together to form a single,organic entity. When each person is counted as one member of a certain group, he loses, to some extent, his personal identity, as he is identified as part of that group. In the context of a collective unit, the danger exists that the members would allow themselves to enter into each other’s “tent,” to get involved in each other’s private affairs. As they are all part of the same group, they might assume that each person’s private affairs are directly relevant to the entire group, and thus they can meddle and get involved in each other’s personal matters.

Rabbi Silverberg explains that the Midrash here reminds us that although we are all mutually responsible for one another, and we are all part of one nation with a shared mission and destiny,nevertheless, we must respect the privacy and individuality of each member. We have no right to“enter the tent” of any member of our nation, to assume the right to involve ourselves in their affairs due to our shared membership in Kelal Yisrael. Even as we cherish our close relationship to each other, and commit ourselves unconditionally to help and assist one another whenever needed, we must remain outside each other’s “tent,” and afford our brothers and sisters the opportunity to express and develop their unique individuality and conduct their private affairs in the manner that they see fit.