The book of Bamidbar is a book of lists; in fact, in English, the book is known as Numbers. Most of the lists are names. It shows that who you are was whose clan you were a part of. Who is your family? Who are you connected to? These are the questions that bubble up through Bamidbar.
These questions are present in the parasha (Biblical book) of Pinchas. After the dust-up between Pinchas, the priest, and an Israelite/Midianite public display of "affection" (read the end of parasha Balak-it doesn't end well for the Israelite and Midianite), there was a plague in which 24,000 Israelites died. Immediately after the plague, God ordered a census of every Israelite over the age of 20.
One way to get a count of everybody in the camp is to divide into tribes and count heads. The Torah does this by a formula that goes something like this: Descendants of So-and-so, here are the clans within the tribe, and state the total. But in three cases, more was added. We read of the tribe of Reuben and of the clans within, and then we read, "Born to Pallu, Eliab. The sons of Eliab were Nemuel, and Dathan and Aviram. These are the same Dathan and Aviram who agitated against Moses…" (Num 20:8-9). Why mention that?
Later we read about the tribe of Judah, but before we get to Judah's list, we read, "Born to Judah: Er and Onan. Er and Onan died in the land of Canaan." (Num 26:19) Why throw that in? And finally, we read about Aaron's line, "To Aaron were born Nadav and Avihu, Eleazar and Ithamar. Nadav and Avihu died when they offered alien fire to the Lord." (Num 26:60-61)
Why highlight these six people, three pairs of two, who had all died? An answer can be found in looking to how and why they each died. Datan and Aviram died because they were part of the group that rose up against Moses during the Korach rebellion. Nadav and Avihu died when they overstepped the boundaries God had set within the Tabernacle and were zapped immediately. We have to go back to Genesis 38 to read about Er and Onan. They were Judah's sons and his daughter-in-law Tamar. Er married Tamar, but he "displeased to the Lord, and the Lord took his life." Onan was supposed to marry Tamar, but he refused, and that also displeased God, so he died, too. The rest of the story shows the importance of owning up to family responsibilities.
Let's stop here to remember that during the time in the wilderness, God and Moses are trying to prepare the people to live in the Land, and unbeknownst to the people at this point, without Moses. He wasn't going to follow them into the Land, and they had to know how to create a community themselves, with the Torah as their guide. So, what can we learn from these three pairs of men? What were their deathly mistakes?
Datan and Aviram threatened the relationship between an individual and the community by taking part in the rebellion against Moses. Nadav and Avihu threatened the relationship between and individual and God by overstepping their bounds in a holy place. And Er and Onan threatened the relationship between and individual and the family by not following the marital laws of the time.
By naming these individuals at this point in the Torah, the Torah is telling us that if you disrupt any of these relationships, you will create an unstable society. The Torah is teaching us that the individual needs to protect and nourish the relationships with God, family, and community. You need all three to build a solid society, both in the Land and beyond.
Anita Silvert is a freelance teacher and writer, living in Northbrook. You can read more of her weekly Torah musings on her blog, Jewish Gems, www.anitasilvert.wordpress.com.