Rabbi BenZion ShafierThe author taught in the Chofetz Chaim Yeshiva branch in Monsey, New York, where he resides. He is the director of theshmuz.com, and his book, Stop Surviving Start Living, is available thru the website or at Jewish bookstores.
“Count the heads of the congregation of Israel according to their families, according to their fathers’ houses, by the number of the names, every male according to the head count.” — Bamidbar 1:2
Less than a year after the giving of the Torah, HASHEM told Moshe to again count the Jewish People. The Siforno points out that this counting was unique as it counted each person by name, whereas thirty-eight years later, when the Jews were about to enter the land of Israel and were counted again, there is no mention of counting by name. The Siforno explains that this is because the generation that left Egypt was made up of unique individuals, each worthy of being singled out. The next generation, however, wasn’t on that level, so everyone was counted only by number and not by name.
It is clear from the Siforno that the generation that left Egypt was greater than the generation who entered the Land of Israel.
This concept is very difficult to understand. The people who left Egypt were slaves their entire lives. They had almost no education or opportunity to learn. From the time they were children, they had little time to focus on anything other than survival.
The generation who entered the Land of Israel had a very different upbringing. They were all born in the desert. Daily they observed the Glory of HASHEM encamped on the Tabernacle. On a regular basis, they watched the clouds of glory ushering them from place to place. Each morning, they saw manna being delivered to their doorstep. They experienced the miracle of a rock providing them millions of gallons of water daily. But even more, they weren’t engaged in earning a living; their entire focus was on learning Torah. Taught by the greatest rebbeim, unencumbered by physical needs or distractions, they spend their days and nights in yeshiva. Clearly, they knew more Torah than the people who had just left Egypt... How could the earlier generation have been greater than this one?
The answer to this lies in recognizing the ultimate measure of greatness.
It’s Not Where You’re at – It’s Where You’re Coming From
It is said in the name of the Gra that when a person leaves this earth, he will stand in front of the heavenly tribunal and be shown a picture. It is a picture of a great person. An individual who changed himself and changed the very world he lived in. And they say to this man, “Why isn’t that you?”
“Me? Little me?” he responds. “You want me to be that great man? A talmid chacham. A tzaddik?”
And they will answer, “That is you. That is you, had you lived up to your potential, had you become what you were destined to be.”
The point is that they hold up a picture of that man. Not a picture of the Chasam Sofer. Not a picture of Rebbe Akiva Eiger. A picture of him. Based on his talents and abilities. Based on the times he was born into. The only question they ask is, “How much of his potential did he reach? How much of him did he become?’
This seems to be the answer to the Siforno. Surely, the generation that entered Israel had learned more Torah than did the generation that came before it. They were far greater Torah scholars. But they were born into it. From their youth, that’s all they knew. That was all that was important in their world — so of course they amassed great fortunes of Torah knowledge.
The generation that left Egypt, however, didn’t have those advantages. They didn’t come to study Torah until late in their lives. Their growth required them to give up everything they had been exposed to. They had to leave behind the very world that they had known. So while objectively they may not have been on the same level, actually they were far greater — because based on where they had come from and the level they reached, they had grown far more.