Parsha of the week

What happened happened. What do we do now?


Bamidbar Chapter 26 is largely dedicated to another census of the Israelites, this time counting the people in the final months before they enter the land of Israel. 

Owing to the midrash in Eichah Rabba (introductions, paragraph 33) which explains how the people would dig graves every Tisha B’Av eve, allowing for those who would die to pass in the night while the survivors arise in the morning, cover the dead and move on, we know that no one else was going to die from this point until the land is entered.

This census comes in the wake of a devastating plague, one from which the people would hopefully learn to avoid idolatry (such as Baal Pe’or) and immorality (as demonstrated by Zimri and Kozbi, who were put to death by Pinchas).

This census usually follows a very simple formula: the name of the tribe is mentioned, followed by its sons, sometimes grandsons as well, each of which is then defined as a family unit subgroup in the tribe. Then the tally of their army age men is recorded.

One exception to this formula is when the daughters of Tzlafchad are mentioned, an obvious preview to their tale in the coming chapter.

More glaring, however, is the exit from the formula that takes place in the tribe of Reuven. 26:5-7 actually follow the formula exactly, including the concluding census of the tribe! However, before moving on to Shimon, we are told the following: “The sons of Falu — Eliav. And the sons of Eliav — Nemuel and Datan and Aviram. Datan and Aviram were the communal leaders who led a revolution against Moshe and Aharon as part of Korach’s rebellion against G-d. The earth opened its mouth and swallowed them and Korach when the [rebellious] group died and fire annihilated 250 men. This involved a divine miracle. The sons of Korach, however, did not die.” (26:9-11)

I suppose it is interesting that in the Falu family there was one son, Eliav, and of Eliav’s sons only Nemuel survived. Whether that should translate to the Falu family becoming known as the Nemuel family is a semantic question which is probably irrelevant. But those are the breaks. Datan and Aviram brought about their own demise, and they brought upon their families the same fate. Does the Torah really need to recall them in the census when, at this point, they’re a tiny memory, and they don’t even have descendants? And why break from the formula of the census just to recall them?

On a simple level, their story is briefly mentioned, and post the census, because they are obviously not to be included in the census — their whole families died.

But on a deeper level, perhaps the Torah is reminding us that sometimes history is unkind or contains inconvenient truths. Just because Datan and Aviram left behind no family doesn’t mean that their story was insignificant. While there were many complainers through the wilderness, none challenged Moshe and Aharon, and G-d, in the manner that Datan, Aviram, and Korach did. And so even though they’re not in the census, and in their placement in the verse they are an afterthought, we can’t whitewash them out of history.

History is what it is. What happened happened, and no amount of handwringing can take back ills of the past. The question is, what do we do now?

In contemporary society, there are people who make demands that certain abuses in history need to be corrected, no matter how long ago they took place. For instance: Columbus stole land, the United States stole land, Africans were enslaved, there was a Confederacy, Japanese were placed in internment camps, WWII. But the real question is what is to be done today? While I have no sympathy for Nazis, even 95-year-old Nazis, do their grandchildren, especially their Philo-Semitic ones (some grandchildren of Nazis serve in the IDF!) need to pay for the crimes of yesteryear? Do families who emigrated to the United States after slavery ended need to pay for the crime of slavery? Do the great great grandchildren of slaveowners need to pay the great great grandchildren of their ancestors’ slaves? What is the statute of limitations?

Mentioning Datan and Aviram here shows us that we don’t hide the past to say it never happened. But they’re not part of the census either, which looks to the future. Sometimes after acknowledging the past, we need to look at the current situation for what it is and be able to work together to say, “OK. That was then. We can’t undo that. What we can do is realize that we don’t want to go back to those ways, we want to work together to build a better tomorrow. How can we do that together?”

A shared forward-thinking attitude can mend animus stemming from the past, as long as descendants of both sides share a vision for a peaceful future.