Diana Lipton
A Bible scholar on the streets of Jerusalem

Taking Asides — In the Parasha and at the Protests (26)

Herzl laments. Post-Shabbat demonstration in Jerusalem. Photo: Diana Lipton

This is my 26th consecutive post connecting the parasha with Israel’s pro-democracy protests.

This week’s parasha, Pinchas, includes a census counting men able to bear arms who came out of Egypt (Numbers 26). Not uniquely, but unlike the similar census in Numbers 1, this census features extraneous information about some of the families mentioned. The interruptions take the form of informal comments, almost anecdotal in tone, that sit uneasily with the formulaic language of the census.

I can’t help thinking of these interruptions as asides, a dramatic device in which an actor – usually but not always speaking in character – addresses someone who is not onstage, typically, the audience. The audience understands that the aside is for its ears alone; the drama onstage continues as though no-one has spoken. Shakespeare was especially fond of asides.

Theater critics sometimes speak of breaking down a theater’s fourth wall, the wall between the stage and the audience. Asides can do that. In a famous example, Hamlet interrupts a speech made by his uncle, Claudius. In his first speech of the play, a single line, Hamlet warns the audience to be skeptical about Claudius’s sincerity when he calls Hamlet ‘my son’. Directors occasionally show Claudius hearing Hamlet’s aside, but it’s typically presented as an intimate moment between Hamlet and the audience.

Take thy fair hour, Laertes; time be thine,
And thy best graces spend it at thy will!
But now, my cousin Hamlet, and my son –

[Aside] A little more than kin, and less than kind.

Back to Pinchas. The census begins with an order from God.

Numbers 26:1 After the plague the Lord said to Moses and to Eleazar son of Aaron the priest, “Take a census of the whole congregation of the Israelites, from twenty years old and upward, by their ancestral houses, everyone in Israel able to go to war.”

Moses and Eleazar pass it on to the Israelites.

Numbers 26:3 Moses and Eleazar the priest spoke with them in the plains of Moab by the Jordan opposite Jericho, saying, “Take a census of the people, from twenty years old and upward,” as the Lord commanded Moses.

Then the counting begins.

Numbers 26:4 The Israelites, who came out of the land of Egypt, were: Reuben, the firstborn of Israel. The descendants of Reuben: of Hanoch, the clan of the Hanochites; of Pallu, the clan of the Palluites; of Hezron, the clan of the Hezronites; of Carmi, the clan of the Carmites.

Since God commissions the census, the numbers could be for his own benefit, or for the historical record. But when it comes to the tribe of Reuben, the census is interrupted, and we are exposed to a category of information that seems out of place.

Numbers 26:7 These are the clans of the Reubenites; the number of those enrolled was forty-three thousand seven hundred thirty. And the descendants of Pallu: Eliab. The descendants of Eliab: Nemuel, Dathan, and Abiram. These are the same Dathan and Abiram, chosen from the congregation, who rebelled against Moses and Aaron in the company of Korah, when they rebelled against the Lord, 10 and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up along with Korah, when that company died, when the fire devoured two hundred fifty men; and they became a warning. 11 Notwithstanding, the sons of Korah did not die.

A census is a list organized according to a principle, in this case, men eligible to fight who left Egypt. Censuses do not generally include life histories or character evaluations. Yet the census entry for the tribe of Reuben contains negative information about Dathan and Abiram, who led a rebellion against Moses and Aaron (Numbers 26:9), and about Korach, another rebel (Numbers 26:10) who is not even mentioned in the census proper.

The phenomenon is repeated with Judah. The census reports that Judah’s sons Er and Onan died in the land of Canaan (Numbers 26:19). This information is not relevant to the census, but it cast negative light on Judah and his tribe by recalling Tamar, the daughter-in-law times three who became the mother of his child (Genesis 38).

Regarding Manasseh, the census again adds extraneous information, this time about Zelophehad, who had no sons, but five daughters (Numbers 26:33). Because of them and their father, we’ll learn in the next chapter, the laws of land inheritance were amended (Numbers 27:1-11; 36:1-12).

Even before Asher’s descendants are counted, the census is interrupted with the information that he had a daughter called Serah (Numbers 26:46). Though not important in the Bible itself, Serah bat Asher takes on a life of her own in rabbinic interpretation.

When the census reaches the House of Levi, there’s a major interruption. The wife of Levi’s grandson, Amram, was Yocheved, who bore him Aaron, Moses and their sister, Miriam’. Aaron, we are told, had four sons, Nadab, Abihu, Eleazar, and Ithamar, but Nadab and Abihu died when they offered unholy fire before the Lord (Numbers 26:61, c.f., Leviticus 10:1-11).

On each of these occasions, information is imparted that, though significant in the history of the family that’s just been mentioned, is irrelevant to the census. The source of this information is stories that appear elsewhere in the Five books.

Sometimes, the census is close to a direct citation of the primary account, as is the case with the deaths of Aaron’s sons Nadav and Abihu. Occasionally, new details, or at least fresh readings, are added. For example, according to the census, the sons of Korah did not die (Numbers 26:11). The original report implied that they did.

Numbers 16:32 The earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up, along with their households—everyone who belonged to Korah and all their goods. 33 So they with all that belonged to them went down alive into Sheol; the earth closed over them, and they perished from the midst of the assembly.

What interests me is the intended audience for these asides. Most likely, they engaged early listeners (there were few readers in the ancient world), amplifying names they knew from other contexts, and linking the earliest Israelites and their descendants.

But for me, these asides represent a voice speaking across the centuries to the hearers and readers of our own day. Don’t tune out, it seems to say. You know these people. They’re your ancestors. Remember the shocking things that happened to them, the brave and complicated things they did.

We try not to talk too much politics at our Shabbat table, especially if we have guests who we think may see Israel’s predicament differently. But a few weeks ago, when our only guests were my husband’s children and grandchildren, we allowed ourselves to speculate about, among other things, what Bezalel Smotrich thinks he’s doing. He’s convinced that history will be on his side, someone said.

I have many reasons for joining demonstrations. Above all, I hope they will have an impact, and arguably they already have. The unprecedented turnout of voters for the Israel Bar Association — an important victory for the opposition — was a direct result of the ongoing pro-democracy protests.

Yet, perhaps for the first time in my life, I’m seeing myself as an aside in the big sweep of history, and from that perspective, I want to know that I did the right thing. Unfortunately, I’m not convinced that in the short run history will be on my side. But in the long run, as clearly as I can hear a voice from the distant past – ‘these are the same Dathan and Abiram’; ‘Now Zelophehad son of Hepher had no sons’ – so I can hear a voice in the distant future asking, what did Israelis do when that corrupt government arose to destroy democracy? I want someone to be able to answer. The country rose to its feet. Week after week, the people took to the streets… And I want to be among them.

About the Author
Before I moved to Israel in 2011, I was a Fellow of Newnham College, Cambridge (1997-2006), and a Reader in Hebrew Bible and Jewish Studies at King's College London (2007-2011). In Israel, I've taught Bible at Hebrew University's International School and, currently, in the Department of Biblical Studies at Tel Aviv University, where I am a Teaching Fellow and chair the Academic Steering Committee of the Orit Guardians MA program for Ethiopian Jews. I give a weekly parsha shiur at Beit Moses home for the elderly in Jerusalem. I serve on the Boards of Jerusalem Culture Unlimited (JCU) and Hassadna Jerusalem Music Conservatory, and I'm a judge for the Sami Rohr Prize. I'm the very proud mother of Jacob and Jonah, and I live in Jerusalem with my husband Chaim Milikowsky. My last book was 'From Forbidden Fruit to Milk and Honey: A Commentary on Food in the Torah'; proceeds go to Leket, Israel's national food bank. The working title of my next book, co-authored with Micha Price, is 'A Biblical Guide to the Climate Crisis'.
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