The Theme of Transmission

  • Rav Michael Hattin








Dedicated by the Wise and Etshalom families
in memory of Rabbi Aaron M. Wise, whose yahrzeit is 21 Tammuz.
Y'hi Zikhro Barukh.



In loving memory of Fred Stone, Ya'acov Ben Yitzchak, A”H

beloved father and grandfather, by Ellen and Stanley Stone
and their children Jake and Chaya, Zack and Yael, Ezra, Yoni, Eliana and Gabi.


The Theme of Transmission

By Rav Michael Hattin





As the Book of Bamidbar begins to wind down, the preparations for entry into the Land pick up speed.  Recall that at the end of last week's parasha, the people of Israel succumbed to the temptations of the daughters of Moav, and joined them in adulating their pagan god Baal Peor.  Adopting its licentious rites of worship, Israel strayed from God and faltered, for now falling short of Bilam's glowing endorsements.  The debacle was exacerbated when a prince of the tribe of Shimon publicly rejected the Torah's higher moral demands by openly consorting with a Midianite princess.  Moshe and the leaders of Israel stood paralyzed to act; it was Pinchas the son of Elazar, Aharon's son, who suddenly brought an end to the matter by summarily dispatching the two.


Pinchas' zealous act earns him Divine approval, and God's 'covenant of peace' with him serves as the opening passage of our Parasha.  The narrative goes on to introduce matters germane to the theme of entry into the land, but it is significant that they are presented against the backdrop of Pinchas' fervent deed.  Perhaps the linkage is straightforward: entry into Canaan will necessitate conflict and conquest, as its existing societal foundation of a polytheistic worldview will have to be combated.  The immoral rites of Baal Peor were in fact part of a much broader cultural climate that characterized the entire region.  Invariably, the worship of many gods allowed for the oppression of many men, and the people of Canaan excelled at both.  Pinchas' selfless but severe act can thus be seen as a paradigm for what will be required of the people when they cross the River Jordan, for numerous Baal Peors will await them on its western shores.  True peace will only be secured once the idolatry of Canaan and its associated villainy have been expunged.      


The Census at the Plains of Moav


"…God spoke to Moshe and to Elazar son of Aharon Ha-kohen saying: 'count the entire congregation of Israel, from the age of twenty and above according to their clans, all those who go forth to wage war.'  Moshe and Elazar Ha-kohen addressed them at the Plains of Moav, on the shores of the Jordan across from Yericho, saying: 'from the age of twenty and above, just as God commanded Moshe and Bnei Yisrael who left the land of Egypt.'" (Bamidbar 26:1-4).


This census of course calls to mind the one undertaken at the opening of the Book, for finally the promise of entering the land, initially held out to the generation of the Exodus, stands to be fulfilled to their children.  This proverbial closing of the circle, which as we shall see, is the dominant theme of the Parasha, is highlighted here by the order of the census.  The tribes are counted according to their arrangement around the Tabernacle – Reuven, Shimon, Gad; Yehuda, Yisachar, Zevulun; Menashe, Efraim, Binyamin; Dan, Asher and Naftali – for it was with this very arrangement that the first census was introduced. 


The Smaller Census Figure


Here, however, the census total is somewhat less.  Originally, the people numbered 603,550.  Here, they comprise 601,730.  Thus, in almost forty years they have exhibited almost zero population growth!  This puzzling fact is addressed by the 13th century commentator Chezekiah ben Manoach ('Chizkuni'), who explains: "This census figure is smaller than that of Midbar Sinai (the census of the generation of the Exodus, described at the beginning of Sefer Bamidbar) by an amount of 1820.  Had the people numbered more at this juncture, then they would have thought: 'since we are now numerous, we will be able to conquer the land.  If we had been less, we would have been unable to do so'.  Therefore, God did not want their current population to exceed that of Midbar Sinai in order to demonstrate that they were nevertheless able to conquer Canaan, for there are no limits on God's ability to effect salvation whether there are many or few" (commentary to 26:51).


Thus, Chizkuni understands that the marginally smaller number of fighting men comprising the census, on the eve of the entry into Canaan, is to emphasize to the people of Israel that ultimately their military successes will not be a function of numerical superiority but rather of God's intervention.  Chizkuni's argument is somewhat compromised by the fact that the difference between the two census figures is so small.  If an emphatic statement of Divine involvement was called for, than one might have expected a drastic decrease in the second census figure.  An example of the latter is to be found in the Book of Shoftim/Judges, where Gidon is told to raise a fighting force to battle the Midianites.  There, Gidon's initial force of 32, 000 is progressively whittled down by God's prerequisites until it numbers only 300 (!), in order to make very clear that the victory could not be ascribed to anything other than God's assistance (see Shoftim/Judges Chapter 7).


The Succeeding Narratives


A careful reading of the larger context suggested by the narratives that follow the census may shed some additional light on the matter.  "God spoke to Moshe saying: 'among these shall the land be divided into sections according to number.  The many shall receive more and the few shall receive less, for each shall receive a portion according to their number.  The land shall be divided by lot…'" (Bamidbar 26:52-55). 


This introductory passage is followed by the census figures for the tribe of Levi, which was counted separately from the general population and numbered 23,000.  The verse relates that "they were not counted among the people since they did not receive an allotment of land among Bnei Yisrael" (26:62).  With the count of Levi completed, the section concludes: "These were the countings undertaken by Moshe and Elazar Ha-kohen, who counted the people of Israel at the Plains of Moav by the banks of the Jordan across from Yericho.  Among them was not to be found a single man who had been counted by Moshe and Aharon Ha-kohen in the wilderness of Sinai.  For God had decreed that they would surely perish in the wilderness, and there remained not a man of them, excepting Calev son of Yefuneh and Yehoshua son of Nun" (26:63-65).


Immediately thereafter, the five daughters of Zelofchad approach Moshe and the leaders, and request to receive an inheritance of land on account of their late father, who had no sons.  Moshe refers the matter to God Who proclaims that "the daughters of Zelofchad have spoken well.  You shall surely give them an inheritance of land among their father's brothers, and you shall transfer their father's inheritance of land to them" (27:7).


A Common Theme


Taken together, we therefore have four discrete sections: (1) the census of the people, which as we have seen, yielded a total roughly equivalent to that provided by the initial census almost forty years earlier, (2) a Divine imperative to apportion the land by lot among those counted in the census, (3) a separate counting of the tribe of Levi who were excluded from receiving an estate of land, (4) the incident of Zelofchad's daughters, who successfully present their claim to receive an estate in the land of Canaan.


In other words, the larger theme animating the entire section is the idea of succession.  The second census records the figures of the children who have taken the place of their condemned parents, and will merit to inherit the land that the parents spurned.  This count is undertaken by Moshe and Elazar Ha-kohen, the latter being the direct successor of his father Aharon. The land is to be divided among the people, and therefore the tribe of Levi must be counted separately since they are not to receive any tribal estate.  The daughters of Zelofchad, singled out in Rabbinic tradition as paradigmatic of the womenfolk who "cherished the land" (see commentary of Rashi to 26:64, 27:1), express the theme of succession on the individual level, for they regard themselves as the sole and legitimate successors to their departed father.  They request to receive his portion in order to perpetuate his legacy west of the Jordan.


The almost identical census figure is now more comprehensible, for it suggests not only that the generation of Egypt has died out, but also more significantly that they have been succeeded by their children, the generation who will enter the land.  The dreams and aspirations of the generation of the wilderness have not turned to dust with their demise, for their progeny will continue their legacy in the new land.  It is this land that serves as the vehicle for the unfolding succession, for the people of Israel have an enduring bond to that place that can never be broken.  "A generation passes and a generation comes, but the land abides forever" (Kohelet/Ecclesiastes 1:4).


'Ascend to Mount Nevo'


Nowhere is the theme of succession more strongly spelled out than in the section that follows, describing God's behest to Moshe to ascend Mount Nevo in order to see the land that beckons on the other side of the river: "You shall see it and then die, just as your brother Aharon perished.  For you both abrogated my word at the wilderness of Zin, when the congregation strove (with you), and you failed to sanctify Me in their eyes…" (Bamidbar 27:13-14).  Clearly, explains the Ramban (13th century, Spain), "this is not a commandment that God insists be fulfilled now, for if that were the case then Moshe would have to ascend to the mount immediately!  Rather, God is informing Moshe of what will eventually transpire, namely that he will soon ascend the mount and see the land.  Since God had said that 'among these shall the land be divided into sections according to number,' He informs Moshe here that the said apportioning will not be carried out by him.  Moshe will instead ascend to the heights before Israel journeys from the Plains of Moav, and then he will die.  Moshe will receive no portion in the land but will only see it from afar…" (commentary to 27:12).


Moshe's response to the Divine disclosure is most remarkable.  It is devoid of regret, contains not a hint of bitterness, nor even a suggestion of indifference borne out of resignation.  It is instead a resolute statement that the welfare of the people is a leader's most important objective.  "Moshe spoke to God saying: 'May God the Lord of all spirits for all mortals appoint a man to lead the congregation, to go before them and to come before them, so that God's congregation be not as a flock of sheep that have no shepherd!'  God said to Moshe: 'Take Yehoshua the son of Nun, a man who has spirit, and place ('veSaMaKhta') your hand upon him.  Stand him before Elazar Ha-kohen and before the entire congregation and give him charge in their sight.  Place your glory upon him so that the congregation of Israel follows him…Moshe did as God commanded…" (Bamidbar 27:15-22).


Who is Yehoshua?


Yehoshua, Moshe's loyal disciple since the time of the Exodus, is here formally appointed to succeed him.  We first met Yehoshua at the battle against Amalek, when the people were attacked soon after they had left the land of Egypt (Shemot 17:8-16).  He appears again as Moshe's faithful student at the sin of the Golden Calf, when he waits expectantly for the return of his master from the encounter with God at Sinai (Shemot 32:17).  We next meet him at the incident of the Eldad and Medad, defending Moshe's honor (Bamidbar 11:28-29).  Finally, we anxiously follow his appointment as one of the Twelve Spies, and marvel at his steadfast refusal, along with Calev son of Yefuneh, to adopt the self-defeating report of the other ten (Bamidbar 13:8, 14:6-10).


Taken together, the above list indicates that Yehoshua has been present and involved in every single formative event that the people have experienced during the course of the last forty years.  He has never strayed from Moshe's side and has always been a source of support and steadfast trust in God.  There is no one more worthy than he to become Moshe's successor, and no one more capable of transmitting his teachings after him.


Transmitting the Tradition


For our purposes, we notice that this transfer of leadership represents the strongest possible expression of the theme of succession, for here Yehoshua is cast as Moshe's fitting replacement.  The formal act of his investiture is called by the Torah 'placing of the hands', or 'SeMiKha'.  Henceforth, it represents not only the passing on of the reins of power, but more importantly the faithful and accurate transmission of a body of teaching, and the profound idea that future scholars must be attached to that chain of tradition.  In the language of the Sages, "Moshe received the Torah from Sinai and transmitted it to Yehoshua, and Yehoshua to the Elders, and the Elders to the Prophets…" (Mishna Avot 1:1).  Moshe may soon die but his accumulated teachings and wisdom, the very Torah that he receives from God, will continue to live on, because Yehoshua will perpetuate it and transmit it in turn. 


Our Parasha thus speaks of many successions: the generation of the Exodus is replaced by the generation of the Entry, Aharon's place is taken by Elazar, Zelofchad is succeeded by his trustworthy daughters, and Moshe is himself followed by his illustrious pupil.  In all of the cases, however, and most especially in the case of Yehoshua, the physical replacement of the deceased is quite secondary to the spiritual continuity of the legacy. 


Long ago, the Torah understood that the survival of Israel would ultimately depend upon its ability to transmit its heritage – its faithful memory of an encounter with God and the way of life obligated by His teaching – to succeeding generations, individuals and leaders.  Against all odds, Israel has succeeded.  Although the formal chain of 'Semikha' may have been broken since the time of Roman hegemony, one day to be repaired as a precursor to the Messianic Age, the spirit of Moshe's transmission and Yehoshua's reception live on.  By actively attaching ourselves to the tradition and assenting to pass it down, we too become an indispensable link in the eternal chain that is Israel.


Shabbat Shalom