The plague is over, the story of Pinchas and Zimri Ahas reached its conclusion, and it is time for the Israelites to move on. G-d instructs Moshe to count the people, and in 26:4 he and Elazar tell the people, “[Count those] over 20 years old, just as G-d commanded Moshe and the Israelites who left Egypt.”
What is the point of comparing a new census to that of almost 40 years ago? One approach judges whether Moshe did a decent job as leader through his handing over a similar-size population. Chizkuni notes that the same formula of counting those 20 and up is utilized — though it is debated as to whether this was accomplished through counting heads or half-shekels. Of course, however, it was done was by Divine instruction, which assumes the method does not matter. Alshich notes that the count is done for the sake of the new shepherd, Yehoshua, just as the count had been done for the new shepherd, Moshe, back in the day.
All of this got me thinking about who merited to enter the land. Put another way, who was included in the decree of the spies and therefore would not enter the land, and who was not included in the decree and would venture on after Moshe’s death?
In Parshat Shelach, at the episode of the spies, we were told that everyone over 20 would die, except for Kalev and Yehoshua, and that the children of those living at that time would enter the land. Is that list exhaustive?
At the end of the chapter here, verse 26:64, the Torah says, “Among those counted now, there was no man previously counted by Moshe and Aharon … [and they] had taken a census of the Israelites in the Sinai Desert.”
Rashi on that verse notes that the decree did not apply to the women (“no man”)! So while there may have been a few women who passed away, like Miriam, the overwhelming majority of women merited to enter because they loved the land! See the story of Tzelafchad’s daughters to get a sense of their feelings.
Using textual hints, the Midrash in Bamidbar Rabba 3 notes that the entire tribe of Levi was not subject to the decree, either. In simple terms, they had not been counted from age 20 and up in any census, and were even counted separately from the rest of the nation. The discussion there surrounds Aharon’s son Elazar and how he managed to enter the land. There are a few answers: he was under 20 at the time, he was from the tribe of Levi, he was exempt from the decree because he replaced his father as kohen gadol and entered on the merit of his leadership position.
Or HaChaim (26:4) wonders why a reference is made in the verse to those who left Egypt, and in particular wonders about the cryptic explanation given by Ibn Ezra. In his own analysis, Or HaChaim notes that plenty of people who left Egypt were slated to enter the land, as they were all under 20 at the time of the spies. Someone who was 18 at the time of the Exodus would enter the land! It’s not a matter of childhood — it’s a matter of having been under 20 at the time of the sin of the spies.
Three groups: Levites, women and children.
These are the people who avoided the decree of the spies, and these are the people who now, 38 years later, along with the new generation, are slated to enter the Promised Land.
What an incredible lesson in patience and perseverance! Some things are not in the cards for everyone. But some things are in the cards for those who can only bide their time and wait.
Moshe and Aharon were excluded on account of the decree — Moshe makes this clear in several places in the book of Devarim. But their tribe, their children, and almost all the women in their lives lived through one fated experience and then joined everyone else in entering the Promised Land.
It is true that for some people it seems there is no hope. But their hope can nevertheless live on in their children, who will live to see a better and brighter future.
I leave you with a thought. If the men died, and the Levites, widows and orphans were not subject to the decree, does this have any impact on the groups of people the Torah instructs us, so many times, to care for and not neglect, especially during holiday seasons?