The Torah in Parashat Pinchas tells of the census of Benei Yisrael taken by Moshe towards the very end of the nation’s sojourn in the wilderness. In presenting the findings of this census, the Torah lists the major families of each tribe, noting how the name of each family’s patriarch became the name of that family. For example, in reference to the first tribe, Reuven, the Torah writes, “The sons of Reuven: Chanokh – the Chanokhi family; for Palu – the Palu’i family; for Chetzron – the Chetzroni family” (26:5-6). This pattern continues throughout the entire census.
Rashi (26:5) cites a Midrashic explanation of these names from Shir Hashirim Rabba (4:12), which observes that the families’ names were prefixed by the letter hei and suffixed by the letter yod, as in “Ha-Chanokhi” and “Ha-Palu’i.” Symbolically, the Midrash comments, this represents the association of God’s Name – which is formed by these two letters – with the names of the Israelite families. This was done in response to the cynical claim made by the other nations of the time that the women of Benei Yisrael were defiled by the Egyptians during the period of enslavement, and thus the younger generations are not the biological children of their presumed fathers. By having His name associated with each major family among Benei Yisrael, the Midrash explains, God confirmed that these families were, in fact, pure, and every person was the child of the man he presumed to be his father.
A number of commentators addressed the question of why this concern arose only now, nearly forty years after the Exodus. An earlier census had been conducted thirty-nine years prior, just one year after the Exodus, and in that census (Bamidbar 1) we do not find the families being named in this fashion. Why only in this later census did God find it necessary to confirm the legitimate status of all of Benei Yisrael’s children born in Egypt?
One answer, perhaps, relates to the fact that this census was held immediately following the tragedy of Ba’al Pe’or, when God punished Benei Yisrael for their involvement in the nation of Moav, engaging in illicit sexual relations and worshipping the Moavite god. Indeed, Rashi earlier (26:1) cites the Midrash Tanchuma as explaining that this census was conducted to count the number of people who remained after the plague that God brought upon the nation in retribution for the sin of Ba’al Pe’or. We might suggest that in the aftermath of this crushing failure, after having fallen to the depths of sexual immorality and pagan worship, Benei Yisrael felt insecure and vulnerable. They began questioning their singular status, and started to wonder if perhaps the skeptics of the world were correct, that there was nothing special about Am Yisrael. If they could decline so sharply, and engage in the most grievous offenses, then, they feared, the other nations might be correct, that they – Benei Yisrael – are just like any other nation. God’s reassurance of their singular status was necessary specifically now, in the wake of one of Benei Yisrael’s greatest religious failures, which may have triggered serious doubts in their minds as to whether they are, indeed, God’s special nation chosen to represent Him in the world. (A similar explanation is given by Keli Yakar.)
If so, then the Midrash here perhaps teaches us of the need to support and encourage those who have stumbled. The Gemara in Bava Metzia (58b) famously establishes that reminding a penitent sinner of his past misdeeds violates the Torah prohibition of ona’at devarim (verbal oppression). From the Midrash’s comments regarding the census in Parashat Pinchas, we might add that beyond the strict prohibition against scorning penitent sinners for their past mistakes, we are also urged to do just the opposite – to offer them encouragement and boost their self-esteem so that they believe in themselves and trust that they are beloved, sacred children of the Almighty despite the grave mistakes they have made. Just as God sought to reassure Benei Yisrael of their cherished status after the tragic failure of Ba’al Pe’or, so must we relate to those who have erred as our cherished brethren despite their past failures.