Parshat HaShavua
Yeshivat Har Etzion



The Second Census

By Rav Yair Kahn


The beginning of our parasha contains a rare scriptural phenomenon known as a "pesik be-emtza pasuk" - a break in the middle of a verse. In the Torah scroll, there is a space between the beginning of verse 26:1 - "When the plague was over" - and its continuation - "The Lord said to Moshe and to Elazar son of Aharon the Kohen."

This abrupt break in and of itself demands an explanation. However, the difficulty is compounded when we take a closer look at the context of this verse:

The Lord spoke to Moshe, saying, "Assail the Midianites and defeat them - for they assailed you by the trickery they practiced against you - because of the affair of Pe'or and because of the affair of their kinswoman Kozbi, daughter of the Midianite chieftain, who was killed at the time of the plague on account of Pe'or." When the plague was over,

The Lord said to Moshe and Elazar son of Aharon the Kohen, saying, "Take a census of the whole Israelite community from the age of twenty years up, by their ancestral houses, all Israelites able to bear arms." (Bemidbar 25:16-26:2)

Initially, the Torah introduces the command to attack the Midianites following the Ba'al Pe'or disaster. Suddenly, we find a thematic digression as the Torah introduces the recounting of Benei Yisrael, the incident of the daughters of Tzelofchad, and the appointment of Yehoshua. This is followed by two halakhic sections, a lengthy description of communal sacrifices and a brief section dealing with personal vows. Finally, the Torah returns to the campaign against Midian and repeats the command to attack:

Avenge the Israelite people on the Midianites; then you shall be gathered to your kin. (Bemidbar 31:2)

This raises a number of questions. Why is the command to attack Midian repeated? What is the meaning of this digression? Why was it necessary for the Torah to insert this entire section into such an inappropriate location? The question deepens when we note that halakhic sections are not characteristic of Sefer Bemidbar, and are usually introduced when they can be integrated thematically into the narrative. (See this year's VBM shiur on parashat Naso.) What then, is the connection between the war against Midian and these parshiot?

Before proceeding, it is important to recall that the census of Benei Yisrael should be viewed as more than dry statistics. We already noted in the introductory shiur to Sefer Bemidbar that, by means of the count, the people are enrolled into the various subsections of which the nation is comprised. Individuals are counted and thereby integrated into the communal framework as the national entity is formed. Sefer Bemidbar begins with the establishment of machaneh Yisrael, which embarks on the journey from Sinai to Eretz Yisrael, but ultimately stalls. The second generation, raised in the wilderness, continues the march. However, before assuming their role, they too must form a harmonious whole, which respects and reflects the individual qualities from which it emerges. Therefore, once again we find a lengthy documentation of all the statistics regarding the new generation, who coalesce to form a nation.

Based on the above, it would be reasonable to claim that at the beginning of our parasha, the Israelites have not yet combined into a nation. They are still a collection of 600,000 individuals marching under the leadership of Moshe Rabbeinu, but do not yet form one organic national unit.

With this insight, we are ready to re-examine the repetition of the command to attack Midian, while placing special emphasis on the subtleties distinguishing the two. The initial command, which precedes the census, is based upon the right to self-defense.

"Assail the Midianites" - Why? "For they assailed you." From here our sages said: If one comes to kill you, kill him first. (Bemidbar Rabba 21:4)

This right applies to any individual, and certainly pertains to a collection of individuals. However, the second command, which follows the census, refers to national vengeance.

"Avenge the Isaelite people on the Midianites; then you shall be gathered to your kin." (Bemidbar 31:2)

This cannot be realized until this collection of individuals merge into an organic whole.

Now we can understand why in the first command, immediately following Ba'al Pe'or, Benei Yisrael are commanded to attack the Midianites for reasons of self-defense. However, the people at this point are not ripe enough to receive the second command, since they are still incapable of realizing the complete significance of the war with Midian. The collective vengeance of the Israelites is suspended pending the crystallization of the national entity.

Moreover, following God's final command, Moshe refers to the Midian war not as Israel's vengeance, but as God's.

Moshe spoke to the people saying, "Let men be picked out from among you for a campaign, and let them fall upon Midian to wreak the Lord's vengeance on Midian. (Bemidbar 31:3)

Rashi comments:

"The Lord's vengeance" - for those who stand against Israel stand against God.

Am Yisrael as a nation represents God in this world. Therefore, the vengeance of Benei Yisrael is interpreted by Moshe as the vengeance of God. However, this also cannot be achieved until the national formation is complete. Only once the people are counted, and the individuals are woven into the national fabric, can the attack on Midian be defined in meta-historic categories.

Therefore, the Torah chose this particular point to count the individuals who form the nation that is about to enter Canaan and inherit the land.

Among these shall the land be apportioned as shares, according to the listed names. (Bemidbar 26:53)

Within this context, the daughters of Tzelofchad raise the issue of the extent of their inclusion within this national entity. Aside from the specific legal issue, this section raises the important issue of the status of women within the context of the community. The Torah then addresses the issue of leadership, as it continues with the election of Yehoshua to lead the nation across the Jordan. (For the moment we will ignore the parshiot which deal with the communal sacrifices and individual vows.) Only at this juncture, the Torah can charge the newly re-established Jewish nation with the meta-historic task of national vengeance, which is tantamount to divine vengeance.

Armed with this insight, we can return to the mid-verse break. The verse begins with the plague that devastated Benei Yisrael and then continues with the divine command to count the people. Despite the pause, this verse implies a relationship between the plague and the census. The connection now seems obvious, since the national unit that is to enter Israel cannot be defined until we exclude all those who will not join. Only after the plague can the remainder of the people combine to create that national entity.

However, based upon this explanation, we are unable to explain the mysterious space which separates the beginning of the verse "And it was following the plague" from the conclusion, which introduces the divine order to count the people. After all, the end is a direct result of the introduction and there is no need to pause.

A look at another example of this phenomenon, found in Parashat Vayishlach (Bereishit 35:22), will shed light on our problem. The verse begins with a serious transgression perpetrated by Reuven.

While Yisrael stayed in that land, Reuven went and lay with Bilha, his father's concubine; and Israel found out.

Then the verse stops abruptly, and after a blank space it continues with an enumeration of the twelve sons of Israel.

Now the sons of Jacob were twelve in number.

The Targum Yerushalmi (known as Targum Yonatan) fills this void with meaning:

When Yisrael dwelled in that land, Reuven went and mixed up the bed of Bilha his father's concubine, for he switched her bed with that oLeah his mother, and it was considered as if he had lain with Bilha. When Yisrael heard he was shamed, for [Yisrael] thought, "Woe is me; perhaps there has issued from me a disqualified son, just as Yishmael issued from Avraham and Esav issued from Father." The Spirit of God answered him and said, "Do not desist; for all are righteous and there is not a disqualified one among them," for after the birth of Binyamin, the sons of Ya'akov were twelve.

According to the targum, the silence of the verse reflects a feverish tension of doubt, as Yaakov begins to question the role of his children within the covenantal community. Until this point, he thought that all his children were completely devoted to, and destined to continue, the tradition begun by Avraham; together they would form the twelve tribes from which the people of Israel would emerge. Reuven's sin generated the doubt that not all his children would necessarily continue his path. Perhaps, like his predecessors, he tragically would be forced to choose between his children and decide who will remain within the fold and who must be expelled. The formation of the twelve tribes of Israel would be postponed for at least another generation, until there would be complete devotion by all the children to Avraham's legacy.

Within the silence in the middle of the verse, our sages detected the deafening cry of Yaakov Avinu, as he was tormented by doubt and overcome with fear. This silent cry is answered by a simple and clear formulation, revealed by the Torah:

Now the sons of Jacob were twelve in number.

All twelve children are destined to continue the legacy. Despite Reuven's terrible error, he nonetheless retains his position as one of the twelve tribes of Israel.

In the aftermath of Ba'al Pe'or, Benei Yisrael find themselves faced with a similar dilemma. After all, there is strong evidence indicating that the tribe of Shimon specifically was involved with the daughters of Moav. The leader of the perpetrators was Zimri, who is identified as "the head of a clan of Shimon" (25:14). In addition, we find a dramatic drop in population of the tribe of Shimon. At the beginning of sefer Bemidbar, the tribe of Shimon numbers 59,300, the third largest tribe. In our parasha, they are the smallest tribe, numbering a mere 22,200. This unparalleled drop can be accounted for if we attribute the 24,000 who perished in the plague of Ba'al Pe'or to the tribe of Shimon (see Ramban).

Furthermore, we find that Moshe refrained from blessing Shimon explicitly prior to his death. Although all the other tribes are blessed individually, regarding Shimon we find no more than a veiled reference. According to our Sages, this was because Moshe blamed Shimon for the disaster at Ba'al Pe'or.

Moshe blessed eleven tribes, and why did he not bless the tribe of Shimon? Because he resented them for the act they had committed at Shittim - it says, "Yisrael dwelled in Shittim" (Bemidbar 25:1), "And a man from Israel (Zimri) [brought near the Midianite woman], etc." (25:6). For this he did not bless them, but nevertheless they were subsumed under [the tribe of] Yehuda, for it says, "... Hear (shema), O Lord, the voice of Yehuda" (Devarim 33:7), and the word "shema" refers to Shimon, as it says (Bereishit 29:33), "For God has heard (shama) that I am unloved." (Pesikta De-Rav Kahana, Addenda, 1)

After the plague that destroyed more than half of the tribe of Shimon, following the divine sanction of the execution of Zimri, the tribal leader, there is a scriptural pause. The Torah is silent, but this silence expresses the frightening possibility, which tormented Moshe and the children of Israel, that the tribe of Shimon must be expelled from the ranks of Benei Yisrael. The deathly plague subsided. The people began to bury their dead and must somehow continue. However, they don't know how to proceed, what path to follow. What far-reaching conclusions are they to draw from the destruction of the tribe of Shimon?

Finally, Moshe receives the divine order: "Take a census of the whole Israelite community from the age of twenty years up, by their ancestral houses, all Israelites able to bear arms." All twelve tribes must be enumerated and included within the national framework. All twelve tribes must combine in order to achieve the harmonious balance that constitutes Knesset Yisrael. Thus, the people are counted, including the remainder of the tribe of Shimon; once again, the total mysteriously settles around 600,000, which reflects completeness. (See the shiur on parashat Bemidbar.) Though decimated, the survivors of Shimon are integral, and without them the nation cannot be complete.

In closing, I will briefly discuss the two halakhic sections inserted in the gap separating the two commands (first individual and then national) to destroy the Midianites: the sections dealing with communal sacrifices and individual vows.

In our discussion of parashat Naso, we examined a similar phenomenon, in which halakhic passages concerned with stealing, an unfaithful wife, and the nazir are introduced in the section describing the establishment of the first machaneh. We tried to show how this entire section deals with issues related to the enterprise of creating a socio-religious framework. According to our approach, the halakhic digression relates to the same subject as the rest of the section.

We suggested that the Torah introduced the nazir as an example of a person who is religiously unsatisfied by his role in machaneh Yisrael. Although only an Israelite, he prefers the model of the (high) priest. Therefore the Torah presents the institution of nazir, which temporarily allows him to realize this aim without endangering the structure of the various camps. Similarly, the institution of communal sacrifice, which is concerned with both the rigid daily routine (korban tamid) as well as the unique ceremony reserved for special occasions (musafim), is juxtaposed with the institution of personal vows (nidrei hekdesh mentioned in 29:39). This, like the nazir, allows for limited individual expression without compromising the universal institutions.

We also noted that, in parashat Naso, the Torah inserted the parashot of sota (the suspected adulteress) and gezel ha-ger (theft from someone with no inheritors) as examples of the interaction between machaneh Shekhina (the divine camp) and machaneh Yisrael (the Israelite camp). Domestic friction and civil strife, which are typical of the human condition, are resolved via the involvement and influence of the kohen, who introduces into mundane affairs a perspective of religious and ethical sensitivity.

In our context, the laws of personal vows focus on this issue. The Torah explicitly deals with wife-husband relations in this regard. Furthermore, nedarim were often utilized within the framework of civil tension (see masekhet Nedarim, chapter 4). However, at this point it is important to note a significant shift. The kohen as arbiter is replaced by "rashei ha-matot" - the tribal leaders. Our sages understood that this refers to beit din, the religious courts run by the sages.

As Benei Yisrael ready themselves to leave the wilderness and enter Eretz Yisrael, they must prepare themselves for a new situation. While in the wilderness, they camped around the tabernacle and were constantly exposed to the kohanim. Upon entering the land of Israel, they will find themselves distanced from the Temple, and to a certain extent detached from the kohanim. The Torah relates explicitly to this transition regarding the permissibility of eating meat. While in the wilderness surrounding the Tabernacle, one had to offer a sacrifice in order to eat meat. Upon entering the Land of Israel, eating meat was permitted even without offering a sacrifice, due to the distance from the Temple.

When the Lord enlarges your territory, as He has promised you, and you say, "I shall eat some meat," for you have the urge to eat meat, you may eat meat wherever you wish. If the place where the Lord has chosen to establish His Name (i.e. the Temple) is too far from you, you may slaughter any the cattle or sheep the Lord gives you, as I have instructed you; and you may eat to your heart's content in your settlements. (Devarim 12:20-21)

This shift also demands a reevaluation of the people's required religious exposure and influence. Within this context, the switch from priests to sages can be appreciated. The Torah demands that religious courts be established in each and every city in Israel.

You shall appoint judges and officers for your tribes, in all the settlements that the Lord your God is giving you, and they shall judge the people with due justice. (Devarim 16:18)

Thus, following the plague, the children of Israel are counted once again as the national framework is reestablished. All twelve tribes, totaling 600,000 people, combine to form a harmonious community ready to enter Eretz Yisrael headed by Yehoshua. In anticipation of this new situation, the Torah suggests a shift from the kohanim to the sages. At this point, the children of Israel are ready to continue their journey and to assume their meta-historical role as Jewish destiny continues to unfold.



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