Numbers 19, where this week’s parashah begins, is a very famous chapter — in certain circles — because it’s the chapter about the red heifer.
As you may know, there are some people who are trying to breed another red heifer. Why? Because you can’t run a Temple of the kind the Bible describes without one. Its ashes are used for ritual purification, and you must be ritually pure to enter the Temple compound. If someone can breed a red heifer, we will have red heifer ash, and as soon as the third Temple comes down from heaven we’ll be good to go.
While we’re waiting, I’m going to proceed instead to Numbers 20, where the narrative about what’s actually happening to the Israelites continues. When we get there, we find a simple but nonetheless very unusual phrase. V. 1 of that chapter tells us,
The Israelites — the whole community — came to the Wilderness of Zin on the first new moon.
The expression בַּחֹ֣דֶשׁ הָֽרִאשׁ֔וֹן ba-ḥodesh ha-rishon can mean “in the first month” if you specify a particular day, as in Num 33:3, “in the first month [בַּחֹ֣דֶשׁ הָֽרִאשׁ֔וֹן], on the 15th day of the first month.” When no other date is specified, we presume that חֹ֫דֶשׁ (from חדשׁ ‘new’) means the New Moon, the beginning of the month.
But — what year are we talking about?
If we go back to the beginning of the book of Numbers, we’ll see that the book starts (in Num 1:1) “on the first day of the month [בְּאֶחָד֩ לַחֹ֨דֶשׁ], of the second month [לַחֹ֨דֶשׁ הַשֵּׁנִ֜י] of the second year after they left Egypt.” That word אחד eḥad ‘one’ is being used here as an ordinal number, the same way Gen 1:5 calls “the first day” יום אחד yom eḥad. (Follow this link for a longer discussion of that phrase.)
A month previously, “in the first month [בַּחֹ֧דֶשׁ הָרִאשׁ֛וֹן] of the second year, on the first of the month [בְּאֶחָ֣ד לַחֹ֑דֶשׁ]” (Exod 40:17), the Tabernacle had been set up. Numbers, therefore, begins a month after Exodus ends.
Num 9:1 moves backwards in time to the end of Exodus, telling us that YHWH spoke to Moses “in the second year after they left Egypt, on the first new moon [בַּחֹ֥דֶשׁ הָרִאשׁ֖וֹן],” the day the Tabernacle was set up, a month earlier than the beginning of the book of Numbers, giving Numbers 9 a chance to explain what would happen to someone who could not offer the Passover sacrifice because he was not ritually pure. Then Num 9:15 resumes the end of Exodus yet again, elaborating how the Israelites would travel or camp based what the cloud over the Tabernacle would do.
There’s another date in Numbers 10: “in the second year, in the second month [בַּחֹ֥דֶשׁ הַשֵּׁנִ֖י] on the 20th day of the month [בְּעֶשְׂרִ֣ים בַּחֹ֑דֶשׁ]” (Num 10:11), twenty days after Numbers begins. In this verse, the cloud lifts off the Tabernacle, and in v. 12 the Israelites leave Mount Sinai at last. They have been there for just ten days short of a year. At last they are making their way toward the land of Canaan.
Alas, the incident of the spies led to the Israelites spending the next four decades in the wilderness, and indeed when we get to Numbers 32:13, we find confirmation that this has happened. Numbers 33 recaps their journey from when “they set out from Rameses “in the first month [בַּחֹ֣דֶשׁ הָֽרִאשׁ֔וֹן], on the 15th day of the first month [בַּחֲמִשָּׁ֥ה עָשָׂ֛ר י֖וֹם לַחֹ֣דֶשׁ הָרִאשׁ֑וֹן] on the day after the Passover offering [מִֽמָּחֳרַ֣ת הַפֶּ֗סַח]” (Num 33:3) right through until they camped “in the steppes of Moab” (Num 33:49), where the rest of the Torah will take place.
Once we get to Num 33:49, then, we are in the 40th year. Gee, times flies when you’re having fun and eating manna. Where did 40 years go? The Torah never tells us.
Numbers 20 is the place to talk about that, because the other thing that happens in Num 20:1, “on the first new moon” of some unspecified year, is that Miriam dies.
We’ve been in the first year and the second year, so we might expect this next “first new moon” to be Nisan 1 of the third year after the exodus. But consider what happens in this chapter:
- Miriam dies.
- Moses hits the rock, and YHWH tells him and Aaron, “You’re fired.”
- The Israelites travel from Kadesh to Mount Hor, and YHWH tells them it is time for Aaron to die.
Num 33:38 tells us:
Aaron the priest went up Mount Hor, in accordance with the word of YHWH, and died there, in the 40th year [בִּשְׁנַ֣ת הָֽאַרְבָּעִ֗ים] after the Israelites left the land of Egypt, in the fifth month [בַּחֹ֥דֶשׁ הַחֲמִישִׁ֖י], on the first of the month [בְּאֶחָ֥ד לַחֹֽדֶשׁ].
If it’s time for Aaron to die, therefore, in Numbers 20 we must be not in the third year but in the 40th year. In Num 20:28, in fact, Aaron does die, just as Num 33:38 tells us, so we know we are in the 40th year. What happened? I mean, what happened for 38 years? Apparently, the Torah does not care whether or not we know.
I’m sure you’ve heard the expression “there is no early and late in the Torah [אין מוקדם ומאוחר בתורה].” It’s a rabbinic expression, but probably more widely known these days from Rashi’s use of it (see, for example, his comment to Gen 6:3) to assert that “the Torah is not written in chronological order.”
I’ll say. The Torah just tells things whenever it wants to tell them. That may or may not be the order in which they happened. On our Jewish calendar, experientially, Leviticus takes a couple of months, but the events in it take just a couple of hours. It gives the instructions for running a Tabernacle and then the Tabernacle is set up, with essentially no time elapsed. Here in Numbers, the exact opposite happens. Lots and lots of time goes by without us knowing about it.
You might call it “accordion chronology.” The Torah expands time, as it did in Leviticus, and collapses time, as it does here in Numbers 20, and we are none the wiser. The experience is a little bit like being fed on manna. You step out of the natural world into this mysterious, magical, Torah-in-the-wilderness world, and time can zip by or drag on forever.
You’ve heard of “the lost weekend,” but “the lost 38 years” is a little bit much. Nevertheless, that’s what the Israelites have just experienced. When our story continues, it is their 40th year in the wilderness, and they’re not far from being ready to enter the land of Canaan. Experientially, though, we still have three and a half months ahead of us before the Torah is ready to leave them. At least, as of this Saturday, all the Jews are back on the same page.