In the second year after leaving Egypt, in the Sinai wilderness, God orders Moses to take a census of the people. God also determines the positioning of each tribe around the Tabernacle. The tribe of Levi is appointed to attend to the Mishkan and to aid the Kohanim.
The Levites are to dismantle the Tabernacle when Israel sets forth and to set it up again when Israel encamps. God forbids unclean persons to dwell in the camp. Priestly intervention is required in cases of marital infidelity or the breaking of a Nazirite vow of consecration to God. God trains Aaron to deliver Birkat Kohanim, the three-fold
Parashat B’ha’a lot’kha
God charges Aaron to light the seven-branched menorah. The Levites are purified; a second Pesah offering is ordained for those unable to participate in the first. Israel sets forth from Sinai. As the Ark is carried forward, Moses cries: “Arise, Adonai! May Your enemies be scattered; may Your foes be put to flight.” When the Ark rests, Moses declares: “Adonai, may You dwell among the myriad families of Israel.” In the wilderness, Moses’ leadership is challenged several times.
Parashat Sh’lah L’kha
Moses dispatches twelve spies to Canaan. Ten report that the land is unconquerable. The people panic, wanting to return to Egypt. Caleb and Joshua exhort Israel to fulfill God’s plan. The uprising persists, and God condemns the people to wander in the desert for forty years. God also commands the wearing of tzitzit, to prompt Israel to remember and to observe all of God’s mitzvot and to be holy before God, who has brought them out of Egypt to be their God.
Korah leads a rebellion against Moses and Aaron. God causes the earth to open, swallowing Korah and his followers. These deaths lead to grumbling among the people, further provoking God’s wrath. A plague befalls the people, killing many. God arranges for a divine sign – the flowering of Aaron’s rod – to affirm his priesthood and quiet the people. God reiterates the duties of priests and Levites.
God ordains the sacrifice of a red heifer to purify those having contact with the dead. Miriam dies. When the people complain about a lack of water, Moses strikes a rock, instead of speaking to it as God instructs; consequently, God informs Moses that he may not enter the promised land. The Israelites skirt Edom when it refuses them safe passage. Aaron dies. After conquering the Canaanites and Amorites, Israel encamps in Moab, across the Jordan from Jericho.
Balak, king of Moab, sends for a diviner, Balaam, to curse the Israelites, so that Moab might drive them off. Balaam refuses, as God orders. Balak offers more gold; Balaam sets out. Yet his ass sees what Balaam cannot – God’s angel bars the way. Balaam then perceives his folly, atones, and proceeds as God’s messenger. “Mah Tovu,” says Balaam, overlooking the Israelite camp. “How lovely are your dwellings, people of Jacob.” Balak angrily dismisses Balaam, who divines Moab’s fall. Yet Israel, seduced by Midianites, indulges in harlotry and idolatry.
God rewards Pinhas, Aaron’s grandson, for zealously halting Israel’s transgressions. A new census is taken – in order to divide Canaan proportionately. The daughters of Z’lofhad, who died without sons, successfully claim his portion. God now orders Moses into the mountains to look out over the promised land before he dies. Moses asks God to appoint a successor first, and Joshua receives the charge. God then instructs Moses regarding the daily and Festival offerings.
Moses counsels Israel about vows. God bids him wage war against Midian, to avenge the Israelites who were led astray. Midian is defeated, the spoils of war divided. The tribes of Reuben, Gad, and half of Menasheh ask to settle east of the Jordan where their cattle can thrive. Moses agrees, provided they first help conquer Canaan.
Moses had recorded, stage by stage, the journeys of the children of Israel: from Egypt to Sinai, from Kadesh to Edom. Now, “in the plains of Moad by the Jordan near Jericho,” God describes the extent of Israel’s inheritance. God provides for the division of Canaan, and for the establishment of Levitical cities and cities of refuge.