This week’s parasha, Pinchas, is about change. The Children of Israel are making changes to prepare to enter the Land of Israel.
In last week’s parasha, Balak, we learned how Moabite king Balak hired Balaam to curse the Israelites; but Balaam was only able to speak the words God told him, and blessed Israel instead of cursing it.
As a last effort, the Moabites enticed the Israelites into committing sins. This caused a plague, and 24,000 Israelites died. Pinchas, one of Aaron’s sons, brings the people to their senses by executing two of the evildoers, and the plague ends. Those who died in the plague were the last people to die before the Israelites entered the Land.
The people are prepared to enter the Land by a census. God instructs Moses and High Priest Elazar, the son of Aaron (who had died) to take a census of the tribes. This census, taken now near the end of the Israelite’s journey, is similar to the census taken after they left Egypt at the beginning of their journey. Of those men counted by Moses and Aaron at the beginning, the only ones (other than Moses himself) left were Caleb and Joshua, the only two of the twelve meraglim (the “spies” or “scouts”) who had given a true report of the Land of Canaan.
With the census determined, God gives instructions for determining how to divide the land. He instructs the people that, within each tribe, the land shall be divided among the men who are 20 years old and older, by lot. The daughters of Zelophehad, of the tribe of Manasseh, stood before Moses and Elazar and explained that their father died in the Wilderness and he had no sons. They ask why the name of their father should be omitted from the family because he had no sons. Moses asks God, who teaches that the daughters are to be given a possession in Israel.
Moses knows he has been forbidden to enter Israel, and asks God to appoint a leader to succeed him and help the people understand God’s commandments. God tells Moses to take Joshua, who been Moses’ student and helper for many years, and install him as the leader. Moses gathers the people and, as a token of passing leadership, leans his hands upon Joshua. (The Hebrew word for lean, yismach, gives rise to the term we use for recognizing someone as a rabbi, s’micha.)
Finally, God prepares the Israelites for the holy service they will conduct in their new home, by instructing them in the sacrifices that would be brought on Shabbat and other holy days.
With these many changes, the Children of Israel begin to transform from wanderers in a wilderness to a people who will take their place in a new land dedicated to God’s service through a life of mitzvot – such as distributing and working the land according to God’s rules, learning from leaders who know Torah, and celebrating our holy days. Although we were removed from our land 2,000 years ago and have been dispersed around the world, the mitzvothave kept us strong in spirit regardless of where we lived.