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The Transition from Insular to Natural

Rav David Silverberg
21.09.2014

 

     In Parashat Pinchas we read of the second census taken in Bemidbar.  The entire nation is counted, tribe by tribe, just as it had been thirty-nine years earlier in the wilderness of Sinai (Bemidbar 1).  In his introduction to Bemidbar, Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin known by the acronym Netziv (nineteenth century, E. Europe), briefly develops what has become a famous analysis of the books structure.  The two censuses, situated at either end of the book, form the structural framework of the entire book.  This sefer, Netziv writes, tells of the transformation of Israelite nation.  It begins with the generation of the Exodus and concludes with their children, who entered the Land of Israel.  But the transformation involved more than the children's replacement of their parents.  The nature of Benei Yisrael's relationship with the Almighty underwent a fundamental change, as well.  The older generation lived an entirely supernatural existence.  This is perhaps best expressed by Moshe's proclamation when the nation embarked on their journey from Sinai: "Rise, O Lord!  May Your enemies be scattered, and may Your foes flee before You!" (Bemidbar 10:35).  This generation did not fight their enemies; they never had to even confront them.  The second generation, by contrast, gradually had to adjust to a natural existence whereby they fend for themselves and work within the natural order.  Indeed, in chapter 21, Benei Yisrael must suddenly engage in warfare.  Rather than leaving it to the Almighty to miraculously dispose of their foes, Benei Yisrael must themselves take up arms and confront their enemies.

     The different censuses reflect this transformation.  The first census was conducted as part of the travel and encampment formation required as Benei Yisrael marched towards Canaan.  Specifically, it involved the arrangement of the various tribes around the Mishkan.  The first several chapters of Bemidbar focus very heavily on the Mishkan, its disassembly and transportation, and particularly the role of the Levi'im in this regard.  In our shiur on Parashat Naso we saw that the preparations for travel included establishing the means by which the Shekhina's Presence in the Mishkan would influence the rest of the camp.  In the census in Parashat Pinchas, by contrast, the Mishkan disappears, so-to-speak, and understandably so.  The function of this census appears to be explicitly spelled out by the Almighty Himself immediately upon its completion: "The Lord spoke to Moshe, saying: Among these shall the land be apportioned… "  Benei Yisrael are counted here for purposes of the territorial distribution of the Land.  True, the Mishkan, which is later replaced by the permanent Temple, continues to serve as the center of religious life after the nation enters and settles the Land.  However, their level of interaction with the Shekhina becomes far less intense once they began tilling the soil and developing industry and commerce.  In this census, Benei Yisrael focus their attention on territorial allotment and less on each tribe's position vis-a-vis Mishkan.

 

     Given that function of the census was to prepare for the distribution of the land, Ramban and others ask why it included the tribe of Levi (see 26:57-65), who, received no designated portion in the land.  One answer he suggests (which Chizkuni and Netziv adopt in their respective commentaries), explains that knowing the population of the Levites was necessary because they received forty-eight cities in the Land (see Bemidbar 35:2-8).  Since the land for these cities was taken from the other tribes territory, the apportionment of the land required a headcount of the tribe of Levi, as well.  The Maharsha, in his classic commentary to the Talmud (in Bava Batra 122a), suggests an alternative answer.  The Torah emphasizes that the Levites were counted separately, and were not included in the national census: "They were not part of the regular enrollment of the Israelites, since no share was assigned to them among the Israelites" (26:62).  Thus, the Maharsha suggests, a special census of the tribe of Levi was taken specifically to underscore their distinctness and singularity, in that they did not receive a portion of land as did the other tribes.  (This explanation appears to emerge, as well, from Midrash Lekach Tov to 26:57.) 

 

     However we choose to explain the Levites roll, this entire discussion highlights the fact that this census was geared towards the distribution of the land, unlike the earlier census, which involved Benei Yisrael's formation around the Mishkan. 

 

     For this reason, the Netziv claims, the Sages refered to Bemidbar as "Chumash ha-Pekudim," or "the Book of Numbers."  Although the censuses comprise a very small percentage of the book's content, they accurately reflect the nation's transformation, from a supernatural to a natural existence, which forms the book's central theme.

 

"When the Plague Was Over" - The Beginning of a New Era

 

     Besides forming a contrasting parallel to the census at the beginning of Bemidbar, this second census also begins a new chapter in Benei Yisrael's history.  To understand how, let us review the context in which the account of this census appears in the Torah.

 

Parashat Pinchas begins with the conclusion of the tragic story of Ba'al Pe'or begun at the conclusion of the previous parasha, Parashat Balak.  Benei Yisrael's idolatrous and sexual engagement with the peoples of Moav and Midyan resulted in a devastating divine plague that killed 24,000 people.  Pinchas zealously avenges God's honor by killing two public perpetrators, bringing the plague to an end.  Parashat Pinchas begins with God's promise to reward Pinchas and command Benei Yisrael to wage a war of vengeance against Midyan.  The verse then reads: "When the plague was over, the Lord said to Moshe and to Elazar… take a census of the whole Israelite community… " (26:1-2).  Why does the Torah make a point of mentioning that God orders the census "when the plague was over"?  How is this piece of chronological data significant for our understanding of this census?

 

This association between the plague and the census likely prompted one view in the Midrash, cited by Rashi, to view the census as 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."  (Rashi then proceeds to cite the second view in the Midrash.)  Rashi makes a similar remark in his opening comments to Bemidbar, where he claims that the census taken towards the end of Sefer Shemot (beginning of Parashat Pekudei) was necessary to count those who survived the aftermath of the golden calf.  In response to the deadly plague, God lovingly counts the rest of the nation, as a shepherd counts his sheep.  This is how Rashi presumably understood the implied association between the plague of Ba'al Pe'or and the second census.

 

     Most commentators, however, disagree.  As we noted earlier, God Himself seems to imply that the census comprised part of the process of preparation for the distribution of the Land.  This indeed is the view of the Ramban (as we have seen), Ibn Ezra and Chizkuni.  But if so, why does the verse associate the census with the plague of Pe'or?

 

     Ironically, Ibn Ezra and Chizkuni interpret the verse such as to specifically dissociate the census from the plague.  The Torah underscores the fact that this census was conducted "when the plague was over," once all those who will perish in the wilderness have done so.  The census was God's response not to the plague, but rather to its culmination; now that everyone who remains will enter the Land, the time has come to count the nation in order to prepare for their settlement in Canaan.

 

     If so, then with this census begins Bemidbar's third and final section of the Book of Bemidbar.  Recall that the first ten chapters described the nation's preparation for what was to be their historic journey from Sinai to the Promised Land.  Soon after their embarkation, however, in chapter 11, the tragic second section of Bemidbar begins.  This section narrates the failure of that generation, and explains why they could not bring their intended destiny to fruition.  Their rebellion against God brought about their destruction, and only the survivors earned the privilege of entering the land.

 

     Although this section does include the encouraging events of chapters 21-24, Benei Yisrael's stunning victory against the powers of East Bank of the Jordan River and Balak's failed attempt to have them cursed, this success is short lived.  When Benei Yisrael capture and settle the lands of Sichon and Og (see 21:21-22:1), they find themselves in a populated area for the first time since departing Egypt.  After decades of isolated wandering in the wilderness, they have finally arrived in a major population center.  Although they killed all the inhabitants of these kingdoms (see Devarim 2:33-5; 3:3), they now shared a border with Moav, from where, presumably, the Moavite women arrived in an attempt to lure Benei Yisrael to idolatry and promiscuity.  Though Bilam failed to place a curse on Benei Yisrael, he ultimately achieved partial success by advising Balak to send the Moavite women (see Rashi to 24:14, based on Sanhedrin 106a).  Whereas Benei Yisrael were to bring the lessons learned in the wilderness with them into the Land, at their initial encounter with the region's inhabitants the precise opposite occurred.  They followed the corruption and pagan ideology of the surrounding nations, rather than firmly opposing the foreign influences and upholding the values embodied by the Torah.  The incident of Ba'al Pe'or called into question Benei Yisrael's ability or resolve to fulfill their national destiny of establishing in Canaan a nation dedicated to the ideals of sanctity and Godliness.  For this reason, God had been prepared to destroy the entire nation, retracting this decision only after Pinchas' heroism: "Pinchas… has turned back My wrath from the Israelites… so that I did not wipe out the Israelite people in My passion" (25:11).  (Needless to say, a comprehensive analysis of the incident of Ba'al Pe'or lies beyond the scope of our discussion.)

 

     Once the plague of Pe'or came to its dramatic end, the final chapter of Benei Yisrael's sojourn in the wilderness can begin.  More accurately, the nation can turn back the clock thirty-nine years, to their stay at Sinai, and resume their preparations to enter the land.  Thus, the census in Parashat Pinchas brings Benei Yisrael back to the position where their parents had been thirty-nine years earlier, in Sinai, ready and prepared to march into the Promised Land.  Their parents were counted for purposes of their arrangement around the Mishkan, as it was the Shekhina, whose Presence was directly felt in the camp, that was to miraculously conquer the land for them.  This second generation, by contrast, worked within the natural order, dividing the land among the tribes, each of which would bear responsibility for the capture of its territory.  Its census, therefore, involved the apportionment of the land, rather than the formation around the Shekhina.

 

     In this light the Chizkuni also explains a rare phenomenon that we encounter in the verse introducing the census.  After the words, "Va-yehi achrei ha-mageifa" ("When the plague was over"), the Torah suddenly inserts an unexpected paragraph-break.  Very rarely does the Torah begin a new paragraph in the middle of a verse - a phenomenon called, "pesika be-emtza pasuk."  Chizkuni explains that the culmination of the plague marked a fundamental transition point.  From then on, no one else will die before entering the land.  Benei Yisrael are, once and for all, prepared to make their long-awaited journey to Canaan.  The paragraph break underscores the significance of this transition that unfolds after the last victim of the Ba'al Pe'or calamity has been buried.

 

Yehoshua and the "Urim ve-Tumim"

 

     After this second census, the Torah records the formal appointment of Yehoshua, Moshe's disciple, as his successor.  In charging Moshe with the responsibility to conduct the formal transfer of authority, God briefly describes the mode of His communication with Yehoshua: "He shall stand before Elazar the kohen, who shall on his behalf seek the decision of the Urim before the Lord.  By such instruction they shall go out and by such instruction they shall come in… " (27:21). 

 

     The Urim mentioned in the verse refers to the Urim ve-Tumim, a device worn by the kohen gadol (high priest) and used as a prophetic means to receive answers to critical questions facing the nation.  As far as we know from the Torah, Moshe himself never resorted to the Urim ve-Tumim to receive divine instruction.  After all, God testified to the directness of His communication with Moshe: "With Him I speak mouth to mouth, plainly and not in riddles, and he beholds the likeness of the Lord" (Bemidbar 12:8).  The imminent transfer of leadership, however, entails a fundamental change in God's mode of communication with Benei Yisrael through their leaders.  A far less direct level of prophecy will now characterize the lines of communication between the Almighty and His people.  Indeed, God instructs Moshe, "Invest him with some of your glory" (27:20).  Rashi, citing Chazal, add, "some of your glory, but not all of your glory… Moshe's face shone like the sun, Yehoshua's like the moon."  From Moshe to Yehoshua we move from direct communion with God to a mode of communication requiring the use of the Urim ve-Tumim worn by the high priest.  The transition from the supernatural to the natural involves as well a less direct experience of prophecy.

 

Temidin U-musafin

 

     This diminution of God's prophecy subtly emerges again in the parasha's final section (chapters 28-29), where the Torah outlines the "temidin u-musafin," the standard sacrifices required at different points throughout the calendar.  The "tamid," or "constant," offering ("temidin" in plural form) was brought twice daily, every day throughout the year, regardless of how many additional sacrifices were required.  The "mussaf," or "additional," offerings came in addition to the tamid offering on special occasions, namely, Shabbat, Rosh Chodesh and the festivals.

 

     The Torah already introduced the tamid offering earlier, in Shemot (29:38-42), within the section dealing with the Mishkan.  There the Torah appears to allude to the primary purpose of this sacrifice: "… a regular burnt offering throughout the generations, at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting before the Lord, from where I will meet with you [Moshe] and speak with you.  There I will meet the Israelites, and it shall be sanctified by My Presence" (Shemot 29:42-43).  Somehow, the daily offering relates to the revelation of God's Presence on the Mishkan and His communion with Moshe in particular and the entire nation in general.  The constancy of sacrificial ritual guaranteed by the tamid facilitated "hashra'at ha-Shekhina," the dwelling of God's Presence in the Mishkan.

 

     As Netziv notes (in his commentary to Parashat Pinchas), this description is conspicuously absent from the Torah's presentation here in Sefer Bemidbar.  As Benei Yisrael prepare to enter the Land, the sacrificial order takes on a different nature and serves a different purpose.  The fundamental transition in the intensity of God's communion with the nation necessarily affects the role of the standard sacrifices, which, until now, has served to facilitate God's uniquely direct relationship with Moshe and his generation. 

 

     Netziv points to one particular function of the sacrifices as warranting their mention here in Parashat Pinchas.  Noting the Torah's description of the sacrifices as "lachmi" ("My bread" - 28:2), Netziv, based on earlier sources, views the kas the means by which Benei Yisrael earn their material sustenance.  The sacrificial order is God's "bread," the medium through which He feeds His nation.  In the merit of Benei Yisrael's sacrifices to God, He provides them with sufficient rainfall and the climate necessary to produce an adequate food supply for the country.

 

     Whether or not enough support exists in the text for us to accept the Netziv's approach as "peshat" (the straightforward reading), it runs consistent with his general theory concerning the transformation that characterizes Sefer Bemidbar.  The direct communion portrayed in the aforementioned verses in Shemot, and which defined the relationship between God and the nation towards the beginning of Bemidbar, now gives way to the indirect relationship with God in the Promised Land.  The Presence of the Shekhina is felt not in the form of a cloud hovering over the Mishkan, nor through the constant manifestation of God's supernatural power.  Rather, Benei Yisrael experience the Shekhina by obeying His commands and thus earning His blessing. 

 

As evidenced by the disaster of Pe'or, the transition from an insular, supernatural existence, encircled by the protective divine clouds, to a natural life of political interaction with foreign peoples, is not a simple process.  Benei Yisrael must now adhere to the principles they learned in the wilderness, yet under completely different conditions.  The Revelation at Sinai, which was recreated in the Mishkan, will now be replaced by a more subtle form of revelation - reward and punishment for the nation's compliance with or disregard for God's commandments.  With the Pe'or calamity behind them, Benei Yisrael now prepare to apply the sacred ideals of the wilderness into their otherwise mundane existence in the Promised Land.

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