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VERY IMPORTANT PEOPLE

by Mendel Starkman    
Torah from Dixie Staff Writer    

Every now and then, we meet up with an important figure. It may be a political figure, dignitary, celebrity, or simply a role model. We are so overwhelmed by their presence that we are happy to do anything we can for them.

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Every now and then, we meet up with an important figure. It may be a political figure, dignitary, celebrity, or simply a role model. We are so overwhelmed by their presence that we are happy to do anything we can for them. The pleasure in helping them is our own. When granting this a little deeper thought, we can wonder, why is this response limited to these specific figures?

As we begin a new cycle of Torah readings, we have the opportunity to reexamine the lessons that the Torah teaches us. Every passage in the Torah has been discussed by centuries of commentators. By studying and analyzing their holy words, we can attain new levels of understanding, inspiration, and personal growth.

It is very easy to misunderstand the Torah’s emphasis. One might think that since the Torah is designed to show us how to live, its emphasis must therefore be on the practical laws of Judaism. However, if we look to the Torah’s actual text, we find that much of it is used to relate stories. It tells about the creation, the forefathers, the servitude and redemption from Egypt, and various events that transpired during the forty years in the wilderness. Very little about these stories has anything to do with practical, civil law.

Additionally, we know that the Torah is very concise with its words. Some of the most complicated laws were not clearly spelled out in the Torah. Instead, they were left for the sages to derive from the specific wording that the Torah actually chose to use. In contrast, some of the Torah’s stories are related in verbose, painstaking detail. A classic example of this is when Abraham’s servant, Eliezer, was going to find a wife for Isaac. First, the Torah describes Eliezer’s prayer that the girl who offers water to both he and his camels should be the right wife for Isaac. Then, the Torah spells out how the story unfolds, exactly as Eliezer had requested. This is how our matriarch, Rebeccah, was chosen for Isaac. Finally, the Torah lists how Eliezer repeated the entire story to Rebeccah’s family. From the amount of space that the Torah appropriates to these stories, we can understand that there is a strong emphasis on them.

Obviously, the Torah teaches us Jewish laws. However, we should not overlook the fact that there is also a significant focus on stories. We know they are not merely allegories, or pointless historical facts. Rather, the Torah recorded these stories to teach us how we should live our lives. The individuals in the Torah were great, righteous people. They were paradigms of good character traits and proper Jewish values. By analyzing their actions through the guidance of the classical commentators, we can take lesson and grow from their examples, thereby escalating to our own personal character perfection.

One such fundamental lesson can be found in this week’s Torah portion. The Da’as Zekeinim, a commentary of the Tosafist school of the 12th and 13th centuries, explains that there is an argument between Rabbi Akiva and Ben Azai about which verse in the Torah is more fundamental. Rabbi Akiva feels that it is the verse: "Love your neighbor like yourself" (Leviticus 19:18). Ben Azai agrees with Rabbi Akiva’s premise, but feels that a different verse one from this week’s Torah portion is even more fundamental. The Torah states that, "These are the accounts of the descendants of Adam on the day that Hashem created Man, He created him in the image of G-d" (Genesis 5:1). From the fact that Man is created in the image of G-d, stems our responsibility to treat others with appropriate dignity and respect. Essentially, both of these verses declare the same message. Both require us to treat others with great respect. However, Ben Azai’s verse is on a slightly higher level than Rabbi Akiva’s. Loving one’s neighbor like oneself requires a tremendous attention and dedication to others. However, it still uses oneself as the litmus test for how far we must extend ourselves for others. Ben Azai’s verse, on the other hand, takes oneself out of the equation entirely. There is only one reason why we must treat others with respect, and that is because they were created in the image of G-d. That itself is reason enough to motivate us to help and respect others.

We must realize that this is not just a philosophical idea it is also a practical lesson that must be applied on a daily basis. Later in the Torah, Hashem commands Moses to take a census of the Jewish people in the wilderness, "according to the number of the names" (Numbers 1:18). The Ramban, one of the leading Torah scholars of the Middle Ages, explains what is meant by counting the "number of the names." Hashem told Moses that when taking the census, he should not just ask the head of each household how many members were in his family. Rather, Moses should meet every single person, and count them individually. Every Jew deserved to be counted personally by Moses.

This idea leaves us with a question. The purpose of a census is to determine the population of a certain group or nation. The most efficient way to go about doing this would be to simply ask the head of each household how many people lived there. That would have shortened and simplified the entire process. Also, individually counting each person would be very laborious, being that the nation was so large. Why did Hashem require Moses to go through this tedious, inefficient process, when there were simpler ways to achieve the same result? The answer is that Hashem was teaching us about the value of every person. Everyone is created in the image of Hashem, and therefore deserves special honor and respect. Because of this, even when taking a census, Moses could not treat anyone as just another number. Instead, he had to treat each individual with utmost respect by personally meeting and counting everyone separately.

This is a practical application of the idea that everyone was created in Hashem’s image. Moses had an easier, more efficient way of taking a census of the people. However, because of the respect that each person deserves, he was instead required to go through a longer, more tedious process.

When we meet special dignitaries or role models, we want to do things for them, and treat them with utmost respect. However, when we know that everyone is created in the image of Hashem, we should realize that everyone should be given that same level of treatment. Essentially, every single person is their own celebrity. We therefore have a responsibility to treat every person accordingly. This can be clearly seen from the way Moses had to individually count every single Jew. If Moses had to go out of his way in such a situation, then all of us must certainly incorporate this lesson into our daily interactions with others. Through this awareness, may we learn to treat everyone both ourselves and others with the proper level of respect and kindness. "This is a fundamental lesson in the Torah."

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Mendel Starkman, a native Atlantan, is studying at the Yeshiva Chofetz Chaim in New York.

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