Pinchas 5760

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Pinchas

This d’var Torah was originally distributed by Kolel: The Adult Center for Jewish Learning during the year 5760 and can be found in its archives.

Pinchas (Numbers 25:10-30:1)


At the end of the previous parasha, Aharon’s grandson Pinchas killed two blasphemers in an act of (very problematic) religious zealotry. At the beginning of this week’s parasha, Pinchas and his descendants are apparently rewarded with a special priestly covenant. Israel then struggles with the Midianites. and another census is taken, in order to prepare for battle. The daughters of a man named Zelophechad complain about the sexism of the inheritance laws, so Moshe checks with the Holy One, Who agrees that the laws need to be changed. Joshua is appointed as Moshe’s successor, and all the special sacrifices of the holidays are listed.


“After the plague the LORD said to Moses and Eleazar son of Aaron, the priest : ‘Take a census of the whole Israelite community by families- all those twenty years old or more who are able to serve in the army of Israel.’ So on the plains of Moab by the Jordan across from Jericho, Moses and Elazar the priest spoke with them and said, ‘Take a census of the men twenty years old or more, as the LORD commanded Moses and the Israelites who are coming out of Egypt.’ ” (Numbers 26:1-4)


It’s been about 38 years since the last census of the people; now that they are about to cross the Jordan river, they need to count and organize the various tribes and clans. Some commentators think this is to prepare for the battles of the settlement; others think the census is primarily for purposes of dividing and distributing the Land when they get there.


As noted above, commentators aren’t sure exactly what this counting is for, although support for the idea that the census is for military purposes comes from the fact that it’s primarily the adult males who are counted- in other words, the very people who are eligible for conscription. This is the way the first official census was done, in the first chapter of Numbers; each man old enough to serve in the army was counted, along with heads of clans and tribes.

On the other hand, compare this passage to an earlier “counting” in Exodus:

    Then the LORD said to Moses: “When you take a census of the Israelites to count them, each one must pay the LORD a ransom for his life at the time he is counted. Then no plague will come on them when you number them. . . All who cross over, those twenty years old or more, are to give an offering to the LORD. (Exodus 30:11-14)

In Exodus, the adult males are counted for “taxation” purposes; this could be support for the view that the Israelites were being counted and organized for the sake of equitable dividing up the Land for settlement. (Ibn Ezra holds this view, among others.)

Rashi picks up on a different part of our passage: instead of focussing on the “head of household” idea (still part of our census today, albeit in a more inclusive form), he pays attention to the phrase “after the plague.” In chapter 25, the Israelites start to worhip a deity called Baal-Peor, and are punished with a plague (among other things). Rashi says that God commanded this census the way a shepherd would count her sheep after they had been attacked by wolves.

Although Rashi’s midrash is somewhat problematic, given that it was apparently (from ch. 25) God who sent the plague in the first place, one could say that the community needed a chance to regroup and re-organize itself after suffering loss. Perhaps the survivors would have felt that the Israelites had suffered such losses that they could not survive as a whole; taking a census might have, in this view, given them confidence and consolation that they could carry on as a community. (We even have an English idiom, to “take stock” of a situation, meaning to assess things before proceeding.)

Another interesting aspect of our passage is that when Moshe and Elazar remind the people that this census is supposed to be done the same way that the earlier counting was done (either the counting in Exodus or in Numbers), they use a present tense verb:

    “Take a census of the men twenty years old or more, as the LORD commanded Moses and the Israelites who are coming out of Egypt. “

Notice it doesn’t say “who came out of Egpyt,” but “who are coming out of Egypt.” An academic Bible scholar would say this is basically an ancient typo; if we amend the text to put the verb in the past tense, the sentence makes perfect sense. Even Rashi says something similar: the present tense refers to the current population to be counted, it just means that they are to be counted in exactly the same way as the previous generation was.

On the other hand, Ibn Ezra says that those who “are coming” out of Egypt means that many of those who are being counted now were actually alive as young children at the time of the Exodus; they weren’t counted before, because they weren’t twenty yet, but they are still part of the generation who left Egypt.

Perhaps we can make another midrash from these various interpretations. It seems to me that at any point in the life of the Jewish people, individual Jews are in different stages of “leaving Egypt.” Egypt is often understood not only as a physical place but as a psychological stage as well: in “Egypt”, the “Narrow Place,” we feel overwhelmed, far from our sacred centre, far from God, unable to accomplish our proper spiritual tasks. In any given community, there are people who are on different stages of the journey: some who are ready to take their place, as Ibn Ezra would have it, and some who need strengthening and consolation, as Rashi understand the purpose of assessing the people.

Some people are ready to enter the Land (understood as “settled” self-confidence about their Jewishness), some people are just leaving Egypt- every Jewish community contains individuals all along the spectrum, and of course, the challenge is to figure out how to all travel together. Sometimes even as individuals, we go back and forth in our spiritual energy; sometimes it feels like we’ve just escaped Pharoah, and sometimes it feels like we’re ready to join with others and build a strong Jewish community. The taking of a census reminds us of the importance of periodically assessing where we are on the journey, so that we can be ready for the next step. Whether as individuals or as a community, we can only go forward if we know who and where we are.

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