“A Tiny Letter Conveys a Profound Lesson”

By Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Bamidbar, is the opening Torah portion of the fourth book of the Torah, Bamidbar, also known as the Book of Numbers. Much of the Book of Bamidbar deals with the laws and history of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, which served as the center of the people’s life during their years in the wilderness.

The Ramban suggests that the reason that the Tabernacle, and later the Temple, were placed in the center of the people’s camp was to serve as a Heavenly substitute, representing the perpetual presence of “Mount Sinai” at the center of the people.

A good part of parashat Bamidbar speaks of Israel’s life in the wilderness and the special duties assigned to the Levites.

The Book of Bamidbar opens with G-d speaking to Moses on the first day of the second month, in the second year after the Exodus, telling Moses to count the entire assembly of the Children of Israel, according to their families, their fathers’ households and by the number of names. Every man, twenty years old and older who is qualified to serve in the army of Israel, is to be counted.

A representative leader of each of the twelve tribes joined Moses and Aaron to conduct the national census. When listing the names of the leaders of each tribe, the leader of the tribe of Gad is identified in Numbers 1:14 as, לְגָד, אֶלְיָסָף בֶּן דְּעוּאֵל, for the tribe of Gad, Eliasaph the son of Deuel.

The commentators raise an issue regarding the leader’s name. In the very next chapter, in Numbers 2:14, when the camp’s setup and structure are described, the prince of the tribe of Gad is identified with a slight change as, אֶלְיָסָף בֶּן רְעוּאֵל, Eliasaph the son of Reuel, not “Deuel.”

Nachmanides suggests that Eliasaph’s father had two names, “Deuel,” which indicates that he knew G-d, and “Reuel,” indicating that he constantly imagined G-d in his heart. Scripture preserved both names in order to convey that both these special qualities were found in Eliasaph’s father.

The Radak says that both names are actually identical. He attributes the change to the fact that both the Hebrew letters, ד–“dalet” and ר–“raysh,” are graphically similar, and are consequently often interchanged. Therefore, some people pronounce the name דְּעוּאֵל–“Deuel” while others pronounce it רְעוּאֵל–“Reuel.” The Torah preserves both names in order to underscore that both names are essentially the same.

Some commentators identify “Reuel” as Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law.  After all, Reuel (Exodus 2:18) was one of Jethro’s seven names. The Baalei Tosafot contend that after he converted, Jethro’s name was formally changed to “Deuel,” indicating that Jethro knew G-d. The problem with this interpretation is that it fails to explain why the child of a convert is listed as the leader of the tribe of Gad. After all, the “default” tribe for converts is the tribe of Judah.

The Imrei Noam , cited by Pninim ahl HaTorah, says that the change of names comes to teach an important ethical lesson. The Midrash states that the tribe of Dan, who was the firstborn child of Zilpah (Leah’s handmaiden), was given a great honor and was designated to lead an entire דֶּגֶל–degel (banner), that included the tribes of Asher and Naphtali. Gad, who was the first born child of Bilhah (Rachel’s handmaiden), after all, could have easily protested why Dan was given the honor of leading a banner of three tribes and not Gad. Therefore, because Eliasaph was prepared to concede and forego the deserved honor, and did not complain, his father’s name was changed to “Reuel,” which means, רֵעַ אֵ־ל–“Ray’ah Kayl,” a friend of G-d, just like Moses. One who avoids disputes, and is willing to forego a truly deserved honor, is considered to be a true friend of G-d. Additionally, although the exact place of Moses’ burial is not known, he is buried in the territory of Gad, on the east bank of the Jordan.

Rabbi Yitzchok Zilberstein tells the story of a young man who, because of a great act of generosity in his youth, was given many wonderful rewards in his life, becoming a great scholar and marrying a truly exceptional woman. His unusually good fortune was attributed to the fact that when he was about to become Bar Mitzvah, another young boy had his Bar Mitzvah scheduled for the exact same date. When the rabbi suggested that they pick a lottery, which he won, he chose not to have the Bar Mitzvah in that shul, allowing the other child to have the Bar Mitzvah, and instead celebrated his own Bar Mitzvah at a distant shul.

In Hebrew and in Rabbinic literature the quality of giving up what is justifiably due one is known as וַתְּרָן–“Vatran,” one who is willing to give up what is legitimately coming to him, yielding and compromising on what is rightfully his. The acquiescent person thus acknowledges that there is a Higher Power in charge, and that this is the way it’s meant to be.

This important lesson is all derived from the slight change of spelling in the name of Deuel, the father of Eliasaph.

May you be blessed.

Please note: This year, Yom Yerushalayim, Jerusalem Reunification Day is observed on Saturday evening, June 4th through Sunday night, June 5th. This year marks the 49th anniversary of the reunification of the holy city.

Please note: The wonderful festival of Shavuot commemorating the giving of the Torah at Sinai 3328 years ago will be observed this year on Saturday evening, June 11th, and continue through Monday night, June 13th, 2016.

Chag Shavuot Samayach. Have a happy and festive Shavuot.