July 10: 8:11 p.m.
This week’s parasha is Pinchas. Its two principal sections describe the census conducted at the end of the wilderness period that will be the basis for apportioning the land and the catalogue of the musaf — that is, additional — sacrifices that were to be offered on Shabbat and holidays.
But our parasha begins with the conclusion of the story of Pinchas, which began at the end of last week’s Torah portion. Last week we learned that while the Israelites were camped at Shittim, the men were drawn into acting immorally with the Moabite and Midianite women and worshipping their gods, so that God became enraged and a plague broke out in the camp. And if this were not bad enough, an Israelite man brought a Midianite woman to the center of the camp, to the entrance of the Mishkan, and began to have sexual relations with her in front of Moses, Elazar, and the leaders of the community, who seemed to be unable to do anything but stand there and weep. At this point, Elazar’s son Pinchas grabbed his spear and killed them both, causing the plague to stop. Still, 24,000 Israelites died.
This week’s parasha then begins with God proclaiming Pinchas’s reward for his zealousness. Then the Torah says:
When the plague was over, the Lord said to Moses and to Elazar son of Aaron the priest, “Take a census of the whole Israelite community from the age of twenty years up, by their ancestral houses, all Israelites able to bear arms.”
Rashi explains, “This may be likened to a shepherd into whose flock there entered wolves and killed some of them, and he counted them to know the number of the remaining sheep.”
So far, so good. But, of course, one of the themes of the book of Bamidbar is leadership. And Rabbi Shlomo Ressler finds an important leadership lesson in this command to take a census. He points out that this verse is the very first time God speaks to Elazar after his father Aaron’s death. What, he asks, is the significance of the fact that this — the census — is the very first task God instructs Elazar to perform?
Rabbi Ressler says that God is teaching the newly installed leader that he must care about each and every one of his people — because they all count.
So we find that, once again, the Torah speaks to the issues of today. As Ben Azzai teaches in Pirkei Avot:
Do not disdain any person, do not underestimate the importance of any thing, for there is no person who does not have his hour, and there is no thing without its place in the sun.
Rabbi Joyce Newmark, a resident of River Vale, is a former religious leader of congregations in Leonia and Lancaster, Pa.