Tag Archives: Census

Commentary for Pinchas

14 Jul

The book of Numbers started out with God ordering Moses to take a census of all the Israelites of military age who were able to bear arms. Then jobs were assigned to the priests and the Levites, and the leaders of the tribes all gave initial offerings at the dedication of the tabernacle. The Israelites were ready to march on the Promised Land.

It didn’t happen, though.

The Israelites doubted God’s ability to deliver the powerful Canaanite nations into their hands, and they rebelled. After countless rebellions and doubts of both God’s power and intention to take care of them, this was the final straw for God. The entire generation (aside from Joshua and Caleb) was sentenced to die in the desert as punishment, with only their children seeing the Promised Land.

Over the next thirty-nine years, the Israelites (both the generation of the Exodus and their children) were anything but model citizens. Immediately after hearing their punishment, some of them claimed that they were once again pious and deserved to enter the Promised Land. Against Moses’ orders, they set out to do so, and were slaughtered by the Canaanites and Amalakites at Hormah.

Then many of them joined in Korach’s rebellion against Moses and Aaron. After God sent signs to show that Moses and Aaron were the chosen leaders of the community and caused the ground to open up and swallow Korach and his followers, the Israelites rebelled once again, blaming the deaths of Korach and his followers on Moses and Aaron. For ignoring such a clear and obvious act of God, God sent a plague upon them. After the plague abated and the Israelites repented, things went smoothly for a time until the Israelites once again doubted God’s ability to provide for them. For this God sent poisonous snakes after them, and the Israelites eventually repented.

In addition to this, the Israelites have also recently lost two of their leaders, Miriam and Aaron, and with them, the miraculous gifts God provided on their merit. On behalf of Miriam they had had a travelling well, providing them with easy access to water in the middle of the desert, and for Aaron God had granted them the ananei hakavod, pillars of cloud that surrounded them on all sides and served to both protect and guide them. Upon hearing of the loss of the ananei hakavod, other nations took this as a sign that the Israelites were no longer under God’s protection and immediately sought to make war with them (Ta’anit 9a), leading the Israelites into a string of unwanted wars.

Finally, at the end of last week’s parshah, many Israelites abandoned God in favor of worshipping the idol Baal-peor, and are punished for it with another plague. When even that does not deter the Israelites, Aaron’s grandson Pinchas takes matters into his own hands and stabs and Israelite and a Midianite while they are engaged in publicly desecrating the Tent of Meeting. Finally the Israelites turn back to God, and the plague ends.

In this week’s parshah, God again commands Moses to take a census of all the able-bodied men of military age in the community, once again preparing the people to march into the Promised Land. Despite all of the ups and down of their relationship, all of the times the Israelites turned away, God did not abandon them. When the fortieth year came, God’s promise to the Israelites and their forefathers was fulfilled. Sometimes in our lives, we feel distant from God. We feel that God has turned away from us, or that we have turned away from God. In these times it is important to remember that God does not abandon, just as God never abandoned our forefathers. “God is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit (Ps. 34:19).” “For God will not cast off God’s people, nor will God forsake God’s heritage (Ps. 94:14).”   “God, being merciful, forgives iniquity and does not destroy; time and again God restrains God’s wrath and does not arouse all of God’s rage (Ps. 78:38).” “God delivers; the King will answer us when we call (Ps. 20:10).”