Number's Numbers Game

  • Rav Yaakov Beasley






By Rabbi Yaakov Beasley





Sefer Bamidbar is a book of transitions, and Parashat Pinchas shifts the focus to the final stages before entering the Land of Israel.  Chapter 26 contains a census of the population for the purposes of inheriting the land, and it defines the method by which the new leadership will apportion the territory.  In Chapter 27, due to the zealousness and passion of Tzelofchad's daughters, the laws of inheritance are refined; then, God orders Moshe to survey the Promised Land before he dies and names Yehoshua as the leader of the conquest.  Even the new "additional" offerings, which dominate Chapters 28 and 29, relate to the Land of Israel; they can only be offered there (Ramban, 28:2).  Of these developments, the Netziv views one as the most noteworthy:


God spoke to Moshe and to Elazar, son of Aharon the Kohen, saying: "Count the entire Israelite congregation, from the age of twenty years and upward, according to their families, all those who go forth to wage war."  Moshe and Elazar the Kohen addressed them on the Plains of Mo'av, on the Yarden, across from Yericho, saying: "From the age of twenty years and upward, just as God commanded Moshe and the Israelites who left the land of Egypt."  (26:1-4)


Why does this counting become so important?  We have already seen a counting at the beginning of Sefer Bamidbar.  Then, we assumed that the Jewish people would march straight into the land, as they were promised upon leaving Egypt.  Instead, their foibles and failures lead to the delay of that promise's fulfillment for forty years.  The next generation cannot enter until the previous one dies.  Thus, this counting becomes the proverbial closing of the circle.  Moshe counts the tribes by the banner camps around the Mishkan (Tabernacle) – Reuven, Shimon, Gad; Yehuda, Yissakhar, Zevulun; Menasheh, Efrayim, Binyamin; Dan, Asher and Naftali – the same arrangement as the first census.  These two censuses comprise the book's structural framework.  In his introduction, the Netziv writes that they tell just not of transitions, but of transformations.  The Jewish people share a supernatural relationship with God upon leaving Egypt; indeed, Moshe proclaims (10:35): "Arise, God!  May Your enemies be scattered, and may Your foes flee before You!"  However, not only does the first generation not fight the Canaanites, they never have to face them at all.  By contrast, the second generation has to adapt to a natural existence.  Food will no longer fall from heaven; water will no longer spurt forth from rocks.  In Chapter 21, the Jewish people are forced to go to war; no longer does God miraculously dispose of their enemies.  There are losses, and captives are taken. 


Nevertheless, we find the presence of the parasha's opening section curiously unsettling.  Shouldn't the blessing that God gives Pinchas be connected to the story of his actions in the previous parasha?  Pinchas's zealousness and heroism halt the spread of a deadly plague among the people, which begins because of the sin of Ba'al Pe'or.  As such, it is a formative experience for the people, but not an act of preparation for entering the land.  Why then is the story of Pinchas split between the two parashiyot?[1]




Let us analyze briefly how the Torah introduces the census:


(17) "Harass the Midianites and strike them,

(18) for they harass you with their wiles, which they prepared for you concerning the matter of Pe'or, and concerning the matter of Kozbi, daughter of a prince of Midyan, their sister, who was struck down on the day of the plague because of the matter of Pe'or."

(26:1) And it came to pass after the plague,


God spoke to Moshe and to Elazar, son of Aharon the Kohen, saying:


(2) "Count the entire Israelite congregation, from the age of twenty years and upward, according to their families, all those who go forth to wage war."


The beginning of Chapter 26 contains a rare Scriptural phenomenon known as a "piska be-emtza pasuk" - a paragraph break in the middle of a verse. In the Torah scroll, there is a space between the beginning of verse 26:1 - "And it came to pass after the plague" - and its continuation - "God spoke to Moshe and to Elazar, son of Aharon the Kohen, saying."  While this abrupt break demands explanation, it becomes even more difficult when we note its context – the command to harass the Midianites.  Though God commands the Jewish people to attack the Midianites following the Ba'al Pe'or tragedy, there are several digressions – the second census, the petition of Tzelofchad's daughter, Moshe's impending death, the appointment of Yehoshua, and two halakhic sections, the communal sacrifices and personal vows.  Finally, the Torah, in Parashat Mattot, returns to the campaign against Midyan and repeats the command to attack:  "Avenge the Israelites on the Midianites; then you shall be gathered to your kin" (31:2).  What need is there for these digressions?  Why must the Jewish people be counted before avenging the Midianites?




In glancing at the census in Chapter 26, we see a listing of families and of numbers, as we would expect.  Levi is counted separately, as it does not inherit the land. However, interspersed within the genealogies, we discover several interesting historical observations:


And the sons of Pallu: Eliav.  And the sons of Eliav: Nemu'el and Datan and Aviram. These are Datan and Aviram, the elect of the congregation, who strove against Moshe and against Aharon in the company of Korach, when they strove against God; and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up together with Korach, when the company died, at which time the fire devoured two hundred and fifty men; and they became a sign.  And the sons of Korach did not die. (vv. 8-11)


The sons of Yehuda: Er and Onan; and Er and Onan died in the land of Kena'an. (v. 19)


And to Aharon were born Nadav and Avihu, Elazar and Itamar.  And Nadav and Avihu died when they offered strange fire before God. (vv. 60-61)


These were counted by Moshe and Elazar the Kohen, who counted the Israelites in the Plains of Mo'av, on the Yarden, across from Yericho.   But among these there was not a man of them that were counted by Moshe and Aharon the Kohen, who counted the Israelites in the wilderness of Sinai.  For God had said of them: "They shall surely die in the wilderness." And there was not left a man of them, save Kalev son of Yefuneh and Yehoshua son of Nun. (vv. 63-65)


Two features are intertwined: pedigree and personal worth. As much as the Torah wishes to catalog those who will enter the land, it also wishes to remind us who will not inherit – and why.  The worthiness of the Jewish people to enter the land is noted by Rashi:


The nations of the world would denigrate the Jews, saying: "Why are these Jews identifying their lineage?  Do they really believe that the Egyptians did not rape their mothers?  If the Egyptians controlled their bodies, then certainly they controlled their women!"


Therefore, the Holy One set His Name around theirs, a 'heh' on one side and a 'yod' on the other,[2] as if to say: "I personally bear witness that they are indeed the children of their fathers!"


            In the context of these genealogies, God is doing more than attesting to the purity of the people – their worthiness in the most intimate of matters, despite centuries of degradation, makes them the worthy standard-bearers of God's Holy Name.  




Why is there a break in the middle of the census's beginning verse?  What connection is the Torah creating between the end of the plague and counting the people?  Rashi cites the midrash (Tanchuma 4) that the census is a direct response to the plague: "This is analogous to a shepherd; after wolves come into his flock and kill some, he counts them to know how many remain."[3]


Other commentators disagree, however.  The census itself implies that it is part of preparation for distributing the land among the people (the view of the Ramban, Ibn Ezra and Chizkuni).  Still, if so, why does the verse associate the census with the plague of Pe'or?  The Chizkuni explains that the sudden insertion of the piska be-emtza pasuk serves to divide the history of the Jewish people into B.B.P. (before Ba'al Pe'or) and A.B.P. (after Ba'al Pe'or).  From here on, no one else will die before entering the land.  Finally, the Jewish people are ready to make their long-awaited journey to Kena'an.  The paragraph break underscores the significance of the transition that unfolds after the last victim of the Ba'al Pe'or calamity has been buried.


E.         WHY PINCHAS?


With the above thesis, we can revisit our original question regarding the splitting of the story of Pinchas between last week's parasha and this week's.  The story of the people's sin and Pinchas's courage rightfully belongs B.B.P., in Parashat Balak.  The nation is still being formed; the final weak links among the people, those who cannot maintain the standards of morality demanded by the Torah to enter the Land of Israel, are being eliminated.  However, the blessings are given this week, to demonstrate that the parasha is not just focusing on entering the Land per se, but also the moral premise behind the conquest.  Entering and staying in the Land of Israel, the Torah reiterates numerous times, is not automatic.  Israel is a land that "vomits out" abominations.  Unless the people come from an impeccable moral position, they cannot hope to conquer nations many times stronger than their own.  Only a people worthy of carrying God's Name in theirs can enter.  Once the preparations for the entry are complete, they can march into war with Midyan, with Pinchas leading the way.

[1] As noted by others, the section is a complete and contained literary unit, with the following chiastic structure:

1 (1-3) "The nation began to commit harlotry with the daughters of Mo'av… and they bowed down to their gods.

ISRAEL JOINED ITSELF TO BA'AL PE'OR, and God's anger burned against Israel.

(4-5) God said to Moshe: "Take all the heads of the nation, and hang them before God, against the sun, that God's burning anger may be turned away from Israel."

2 (6) Behold, an Israelite man came and brought to his brethren a Midianite woman, before the eyes of Moshe and before the eyes of the entire Israelite congregation, who were weeping at the entrance of the Ohel Mo'ed.

3 (7-9) Pinchas, SON OF ELAZAR, SON OF AHARON THE KOHEN saw, and he arose… and he took…

He went after the Israelite man, into the chamber, and he impaled both of them… and the plague was stopped FROM UPON THE ISRAELITES…

3a (10-13) "…Pinchas SON OF ELAZAR SON OF AHARON THE KOHEN has turned away My anger FROM UPON THE ISRAELITES…

"Therefore you shall say: Behold, I bestow upon him My covenant of peace.

"A covenant of eternal priesthood shall be with him and with his descendants after him, in return for his zealousness for God and his atonement for the Israelites."

2a (14-16) The name of the Israelite man who was struck… was Zimri son of Salu, a prince of a patriarchal house of Shimon.

The name of the woman who was struck, the Midianite, was Kozbi daughter of Tzur - he was a clan head of a patriarchal house of Midyan.

1a (16-18) "…Harass the Midianites and strike them, for they harass you with their wiles, which they prepared for you CONCERNING THE MATTER OF PE'OR and concerning the matter of Kozbi, daughter of a prince of Midyan, their sister, who was struck down on the day of the plague BECAUSE OF THE MATTER OF PE'OR."


[2] Together, the letters 'yod' and 'heh' spell a name of God.  The families enumerated in Chapter 26 use the names of their progenitors and add a 'heh' to the beginning and a 'yod' to the end.  For example, the family of the firstborn son of Re'uven, Chanokh, is known as "ha-Chanokhi" (v. 5)

[3] Rashi makes a similar remark in his opening comments to Sefer Bamidbar, claiming that the census taken towards the end of Sefer Shemot is necessary to count those who survive the sin of the Golden Calf.  In response to the deadly plague, God lovingly counts the rest of the nation, as a shepherd counts his sheep.