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‘Mistaken Identification’ Parashat Bemidbar 5782

The vast majority of the portion of Bemidbar pertains to counting, the people who were counted, and the people who performed the counting. G-d commands Moshe to take a census of the people and He appoints tribal leaders who will assist him. The Torah calls these men [Bemidbar 1:16] “The elected of the assembly, the chieftains of their ancestral tribes: they are the heads of the contingents of Israel.” These chieftains appear sporadically throughout the Book of Bemidbar: They march at the head of the camp and they offer sacrifices at the consecration of the Tabernacle (Mishkan). They always appear together as a group and not as individuals. In this essay, we will learn about the secret life of one of them.

A man by the name of [Bemidbar 1:6] “Shelumiel the son of Tzurishadai” was appointed as the chieftain of the tribe of Shimon. The Talmud in Tractate Sanhedrin [82b] reveals that Shelumiel had an assortment of identities: “Zimri has five names: ‘Zimri’; and ‘son of Salu’; and ‘Saul’; and ‘son of the Canaanite woman’; and ‘Shelumiel son of Tzurishadai’. He was called ‘Zimri’ because of the fact that he became like a scrambled (muzeret) egg as a result of engaging in multiple sexual acts. He was called ‘son of Salu’ because of the fact that he evoked (she’hisli) the sins of his family. He was called ‘Saul (Shaul)’ because of the fact that he lent (she’hishil) himself to sinful matters. He was called ‘son of the Canaanite woman’ because of the fact that he performed an act of Canaan, as the Canaanites are renowned for their licentiousness. And what is his given name? ‘Shelumiel, the son of Tzurishadai’, is his name, the chieftain of the tribe of Shimon”.

Before we can fully understand what the Talmud is teaching us, we need to acquaint ourselves with two additional characters. The first is Zimri, the son of Salu. In the fortieth year of their wandering in the desert, the Jewish People are seduced en masse by Midianite women. Moshe and Aaron completely lose control of the situation. Everything comes to a head when Zimri, the son of Salu, takes a Midianite princess and, in front of the entire nation, fornicates with her. Pinchas, the grandson of Aaron, takes a sword and rams it through the two lovers and the nation is shocked into submission. Zimri is described as [Bemidbar 25:14] “Chieftain of an ancestral house of Shimon”. As both Zimri and Shelumiel have the title of “Chieftain of the tribe of Shimon”, the Talmud concludes that these were actually the same person.

The second character appears in the census of Jacob’s family when they first go down to Egypt. One of the sons of Shimon is named [Bereishit 46:10] “Saul, the son of the Canaanite woman”. Prima facie, it is bizarre that one of Jacob’s sons would marry a Canaanite. Indeed, when Isaac sends Jacob to Haran to find a wife, he warns him [Bereishit 28:1] “Do not take a wife from among the Canaanite women”. Our Sages in the Midrash suggest that the “Canaanite woman” in question was actually Shimon’s sister, Dinah, who was raped by Shechem. After Shimon and Levi exact retribution from Shechem, Dinah refuses to leave her tent until Shimon agrees to marry her[1]. According to the Talmud in Tractate Sanhedrin quoted above, Saul, the son of the Canaanite, and Shelumiel, the son of Tzurishadai, were actually the same person.

Rabbi Shmuel Eidels, known as the Maharsha, who lived in Poznan at the turn of the seventeenth century, raises a number of issues[2] regarding the identity of Zimri-Tzuriel-Saul. The first issue concerns the time-frames in which these people lived. Saul lived at the beginning of the Egyptian exile, Tzuriel is appointed chieftain immediately after the exodus, and Zimri commits his heinous crime during the fortieth year of wandering in the desert. Assuming that the Jewish People spent two hundred and ten years in Egypt[3], this means that Saul-Zimri had to be at least two hundred and fifty years old at the time he was killed. Further, as Shelumiel and Zimri lived forty years apart, who is to say that Shelumiel did not die and was then replaced by Zimri? This would make sense, as every man between the ages of twenty and sixty that left Egypt died in the desert as a result of the sin of the spies. The second issue the Maharsha raises pertains to the title of “Chieftain”. Notice that Shelumiel and his colleagues are called “Chieftains of their ancestral tribes (Nesi’ei matot avotam)” while Zimri is referred to only as “Chieftain of an ancestral house of Shimon (Nesi beit av la’Shimoni)”. There is a difference between the two titles. Each tribe was composed of sub-tribes, called ancestral houses. Each tribe had one ancestral house for each of Jacob’s grandchildren who left for Egypt. For instance, the tribe of Levi was divided into five ancestral houses, one for each of Levi’s sons: Amram, Yitzhar, Kehat, Hevron and Uziel. And so it could be posited that Zimri was only a chieftain of one ancestral house while Shelumiel was the chieftain of the entire tribe, meaning that they were two different people.

Perhaps the greatest difficulty with the Talmud is its incrimination of a person who has seemingly done no wrong. While it is clear that Zimri is guilty of some serious crimes and that Saul, the son of the Canaanite, seems to have a sordid past, there is nothing about Shelumiel that indicates that he was not perfectly righteous. Why does the Talmud smear a seemingly innocent person? I suggest that the Talmud is teaching not a historical lesson, but, rather, an ethical one. Shelumiel, the son of Tzurishadai, is as white as the driven snow. There is no reason to believe otherwise: The Torah refers to Shelumiel and the other chieftains as “Heads of the contingents of Israel”. This is not a title that is bestowed upon a wicked person. Even the Talmud acknowledges this: While it denigrates the names “Saul” – “who performed the actions of the Canaanite” – and “Zimri” – the “scrambled egg” – it says nothing denigrating about the name “Shelumiel”.  Rather, the Talmud is leveraging Shelumiel’s innocence to teach a critical lesson: Each of us is born with certain personality characteristics that we inherited from our parents. Our DNA cannot be changed. Nevertheless, the Torah challenges us to overcome our bad traits and to channel them in ways that lead to positive outcomes. Our innate character does not unilaterally determine our actions – it is only one input into the equation. The Talmud in Tractate Shabbat [156a] teaches, “One born under the influence of Mars will spill blood. Rav Ashi said: He will be either a blood letter, or a thief, or a slaughterer of animals, or a circumciser.” The doctor and the serial killer might share similar initial conditions but their life trajectories are completely different. The Talmud is teaching us that while Shelumiel’s initial conditions were not optimal, he overcame them to become the chieftain of the entire tribe of Shimon. The Talmud’s identification of Shelumiel with Zimri teaches that we must continually expend energy to overcome our natural characteristics. We cannot let down our guard for even an instant, lest Saul-Shelumiel revert back into Zimri[4], the epitome of eveil. We are who we are but we can be who we want to be. All that is required is a lifetime of effort.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5782

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza, Eli bat Ilana, and Geisha bat Sara.

[1] Why marrying one’s own sister is any less inappropriate than marrying a Canaanite woman is discussed by the commentators.

[2] While the Maharsha tries to explain the Talmud’s claim, he acknowledges that this is no simple matter.

[3] The Torah actually mentions four hundred and thirty years. Our Sages whittle that number down slightly.

[4] One could posit that the Talmud could have added one more person to its Saul-Shelumiel-Zimri identity. At the end of the portion of Vayishlach, the Torah lists the names of kings who ruled in the Land of Edom before the Jews conquered the Land of Israel. One of these kings is [Bereishit 36:37] “Saul, from Rechovot-on-the-River”. The Talmud could have asserted that this Saul and Saul, the son of the Canaanite, are one and the same. Perhaps the reason the Talmud does not make this connection is because of the home town of the Edomite king, Rechovot. After Isaac is thrown out of Gerar by the Philistines, he digs wells and the Philistines dispute their ownership. Isaac give the wells names to commemorate the dispute. For instance, he calls one of the wells “Esek (Quarrel)” and another well “Sitna (enmity)”. Eventually, Isaac moves farther away from the Philistines and he digs a well that they do not dispute. He calls this well “Rechovot (expanse)”, saying [Bereishit 26:22] “Now, at last, G-d has granted us ample space (hir’chiv) to increase in the land.” “Rechovot” is a metaphor for peace. Saul might be an Edomite king and he might share his name with Saul, the son of the Canaanite, but if he originates from Rechovot, if he comes from peace, it is simply untenable to connect him in any way with Zimri.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over thirty years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science". Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA, Canada, UK, South Africa, and Australia. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2001 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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