This week’s Torah portion opens with the reward of Phineas by God for killing Zimri ben Salu, leader of a family from the tribe of Simeon, and Kozbi bat Zur, a woman from a noble Midianite family. Zimri and Kozbi were publicly fornicating while participating in a pagan orgy in worship of Baal Peor. This orgy was initiated by the daughters of Moab, luring the men of Israel into this immoral pagan debauchery.
Immediately after the reward of Phineas, God spoke to Moses:
The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Be hostile towards the Midianites and smite them; for they have been hostile to you with their tricks, with which they have deceived you in the affair of Peor and in the affair of Cozbi, the daughter of the leader of Midian, their sister who was slain on the day of the plague because of Peor.” – Numbers 25:16-18
This makes sense. The Midianites caused the immorality and subsequent plague that befell the men of Israel. Now God wants Moses to take revenge on the Midianites. Immediately following this instruction to wage war on Midian, God commanded Moses to take a census.
Then it came about after the plague, that the Lord spoke to Moses and to Eleazar the son of Aaron the priest, saying, “Take a census of all the congregation of the sons of Israel from twenty years old and upward, by their fathers’ households, whoever is able to go out to war in Israel.” – Numbers 26:1-2
While the purpose of the census is not explicitly stated here, it is clear from the context that the goal was to determine the size of the potential fighting force of the nation. God had just commanded Moses to wage war against Midian, and now He told him to count “whoever is able to go out to war in Israel.”
In light of this apparently straightforward purpose of the census, to count men of fighting age, it is curious to read what God told Moses immediately after the census was completed.
These are the counted of the children of Israel, six hundred one thousand seven hundred and thirty. Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “To these the land shall be divided for an inheritance according to the number of names. To the greater in number you shall increase its inheritance, and to the lesser in number you shall decrease its inheritance. Each according to its number shall its inheritance be given.” – Numbers 26:51-54
Here, God told Moses that the numbers arrived at in this census will serve as the basis for the size of the portions to be allotted to each family in the division of the land of Israel. From this it seems that the purpose of the census was twofold. First, as indicated by the context and content of the initial command, the purpose of the census was to determine the number of potential soldiers to fight a war against Midian. Then, at the end of the census, God revealed a second purpose, namely, to determine the size of the portions of territory in the promised land.
It seems that God was killing two birds with one stone. There was immediate practical value in counting men of fighting age. Once this count was done, God told Moses that this same census can accomplish a second purpose as well.
There are two problems with this explanation. First, when the war against Midian eventually took place, Moses instructed the tribes to contribute one thousand men per tribe, twelve thousand in all. Considering this, what would be the point of counting all six hundred thousand men in preparation for this war? The second difficulty with the ‘killing two birds with one stone’ explanation is that it is strange. If one of the two purposes of the census was to determine the allotment of territory in the land, why was this not indicated at the outset? Why did God withhold this information until after the census was complete?
I’d like to suggest a straightforward explanation. The purpose of the census was exactly what was stated at the outset. Moses was to count the fighting men of Israel, “whoever is able to go out to war in Israel.” In Hebrew, kol yotze tzava, literally “all who join the army of Israel.”
At the conclusion of the census, God then taught Moses, and us, a powerful lesson. Those who are willing to fight for the land are worthy of inheriting the land. To put this another way, the census counted “all who join the army of Israel.” Period. If someone were to then ask about how we are to determine the allotment of portions in the land of Israel, God’s answer is simple.
“To these the land shall be divided for an inheritance according to the number of names.” – Numbers 26:53
Who are “these”? All who join the army of Israel. By presenting the dual purpose of the census this way, we learn a lesson that applies at all times. Inheritance of the land requires the willingness to fight and sacrifice. A people that is not willing to join the army and fight will never inherit the land and will never be a sovereign nation.
God’s promises of the future, the “promised land” that we all strive for need to be fought for. We must be willing to step up and offer ourselves to the “army of Israel.” The inheritance of the promised land comes to those who are willing to fight for it.
Rabbi Pesach Wolicki is Executive Director of Ohr Torah Stone’s Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation and cohost of the Shoulder to Shoulder podcast