By Rabbi Yaakov Yosef Schechter
The Power of Dust
Bamidbar 23:10 “מי מנה עפר יעקב ומספר את רבע ישראל”
“Who has counted the dust of Yaakov or numbered a quarter of Yisroel.” Rashi says that this pasuk should be understood the way Onkelos translates it—Who can count klal Yisroel, of whom it has been said that they shall be as numerous as the dust of the earth (Bereishis 13:16). Rashi provides another pshat—“עפר יעקב” implies that there can be no calculation of the commandment which klal Yisroel fulfills with dust. Some examples of mitzvos which they fulfill with dust are: not plowing a field with an ox and a donkey together, not planting kilayim (mixed seeds), ashes of a cow, and the dust of the sotah. This parsha is the discussion of Bilam explaining to Balak why he cannot curse klal Yisroel. What is the significance of the mitzvos of the “עפר” whereby Bilam cannot curse klal Yisroel?
The pasuk says the words, “מנה” and “מספר” which both seem to mean counting. What is the difference between these two words? The Malbim explains that “ספר” means a counting of something which can be counted, such as the stars. “מנה” means counting that which cannot really be counted, such as the dust of the ground. If one were to count the stars, he might know how many there are, and would know by another counting if there were any missing. The dust of the earth cannot be counted, for it is too numerous. While the stars, in theory, can be counted, practically speaking, they cannot be counted, for each star is its own world. Klal Yisroel, as well, are like the dirt, in that they cannot be counted. Moreover, they are like the stars, where each and every yid is a complete world and cannot be counted among others.
The word, “עפר” is a unique view of the psyche of klal Yisroel. The Chasam Sofer explains that Bilam saw the greatness of klal Yisroel. Even if they fall all the way to the “עפר,” they never need to despair of rachamim from the Ribbono Shel Olam. How can klal Yisroel tap into that great rachamim of Hakadosh Baruch Hu? Klal Yisroel need to make themselves like the “עפר” and this will raise them to the greatest heights.
The Zera Beirach says that there are times that we say that klal Yisroel can be counted and are the smallest of the nations (Devarim 7:7). Then there are times we say that klal Yisroel cannot be counted, for they are so numerous (Hoshea 2:1). Can they be counted or not? In Brachos 18a, tzaddikim are called among the living even when they are dead. When looking at the number of people who are actually living, klal Yisroel is indeed a small nation. When it says that klal Yisroel is as great in number as the stars, that includes the tzaddikim of all the generations all the way back to Avraham Avinu, all of whom are still “living,” which makes klal Yisroel truly great in number.
The Midrash tells us how klal Yisroel are like “עפר” in another way. Just as the ground sprouts food, which provides sustenance and life to the entire world, so, too,does klal Yisroel, in the zechus of their heeding the mitzvos of the Torah, infuse life into the world. The Ben Ish Chai explains that klal Yisroel brings 70 korbanos during the yom tov of Sukkos one bull for each of the 70 nations of the world. “מי מנה”—Who can count; “עפר” the effect of the“ע’ פר”
“70 bulls” which klal Yisroel bring as korbanos for the 70 nations of the world.
The Yalkut Shimoni explains that this pasuk refers to klal Yisroel who wear Shabbos and yom tov clothing and get themselves dirty with “עפר” when going to hear divrei Torah from the elders. The Ben Ish Chai explains that we are to learn from this Midrash that we must go above and beyond for the Ribbono Shel Olam, and for the Torah hakedosha. If one performs his obligation, he is not demonstrating love. However, if one goes above and beyond the call of duty, that shows love and dedication. The Midrash is teaching us that klal Yisroel are ready to get themselves dirty with “עפר,” dirt—to go above and beyond their obligations to demonstrate their true love for Hakadosh Baruch Hu and the Torah hakedosha.
There are responsibilities that a person has to others, and fulfilling those responsibilities in no way shows love for the other person. If a husband buys something for his wife that he is not obligated to, that shows his love for her. His doing more than he has to is what demonstrates that love.
Bilam said that he could not curse klal Yisroel because of the power of “עפר.” Klal Yisroel are children of the Ribbono Shel Olam. It is in the zechus of the Torah hakedosha that klal Yisroel learn that the entire world is sustained. We must get ourselves “dirty and dusty” in our pursuit of Torah study. Doing the minimum, performing our obligations, does not show true love to Hakadosh Baruch Hu. Even if it is hard for us, we must make the time to learn Torah. It does not have to be all at once, but we must constantly be striving higher. One who does not learn at all, should start with once or twice a week. He will hopefully recognize how his Torah study changes his life, and will seek to learn more and more. It is that power of “עפר”—the power of going the extra mile in our avodas Hashem, that defeats our enemies. At the same time, we must note the other power of the “עפר,” of always remaining humble. No matter how much we achieve, we must know that we can only do so with the help of Hashem, and have no reason to be arrogant. May we be zoche to show Hakadosh Baruch Hu how much we love Him, and in that zechus none of our enemies will have any power over us.
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Rabbi Yaakov Yosef Schechter is the author of Parshah Pshetl.