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Beit Midrash Torah Portion and Tanach Pinchas

Hirsch At Your Table

Land Distribution

A brief Dvar Torah on the Parsha, based on R. Samson Raphael Hirsch’s Torah Commentary
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לרב תרבה נחלתו ולמעט תמעיט נחלתו איש לפי פיקודיו יותן נחלתו. אך בגורל יחלק הארץ לשמות מטות אבותם ינחלו. (Nm 26:54-55)
The Jews were encamped on the eastern side of the Jordan River, opposite the city of Jericho, ready to enter the land of Canaan. They were then commanded to organize another population census, to determine those eligible to participate in the division of the land. The basic formula for land allocation was that the larger tribes and families would receive larger land areas and the smaller ones would receive less land. The choice of land would be decided by casting lots.

R. Hirsch, by analyzing certain words in these verses, explains the system that was evolved for the land distribution. The primary consideration was not individual parcels, despite the use of the word איש/person, but the geographic cohesion of units of families and tribes. This can be learned from the use of the word פיקודיו/assigned numbers. The only פיקודים ever mentioned in the Torah related to family and tribe and never to individual persons. The final allocation as to inheriting the land/נחלתו will devolve to those now entering the land and would be determined by the sum totals established by this census.

The word איש is from the root א-י-ש "to exist" and have a known character. The word פיקודים is from the root פ-ק-ד "to invest with purpose." It refers to the numbers that were part of the census. The word ינחלו is from the root נ-ח-ל which means "to flow," as from one generation to another.


However the expression לשמות מטות אבותם/to the names of their tribal fathers, seems to modify the simple formula mentioned, by referring to the אבות/fathers. Who can these אבות be? This must mean the generation that left Egypt but was destined to travel the desert for forty years and not permitted to enter the land. They are the אבות of the current generation about to take possession/ינחלו of the land. The "new" formula therefore, allocates land to the second generation, based upon the rights of the earlier generation.

The word שמות is from the root ש-ו-ם which means "to place." A name places an object in the mind of a listener. The word מטות is from the root נ-ט-ה which means "to spread." A tribe is an extension of a family. The word אבותם is from the root א-ב-ה which means "to submit" to the father who is the family determiner.


In essence, then, there was a combination of formulae. Originally the land was promised to the אבות, the generation that left Egypt. Therefore the families of that generation owned the rights to the land. However, the numbers of the current generation must also be considered since they inherited those rights. Therefore the numbers of the families of the Egyptian generation determined the size of the land that would be allocated to each family and tribe. The new, inheriting generation, would then allocate those lands according to the numbers registered by this final census.

This system is called חזרה/going back. The future is essentially determined by the past. Fathers and grandfathers establish the rights of offspring. This system sets up two important principles. It actualizes the belief that God's promises for the future are legalized immediately, irrespective of momentary failures: even if the generation that left Egypt sinned and therefore could not take possession, their claim to the land remained. This in turn concretizes the Jewish ownership of the land, irrespective of the worthiness of the future claimants.

The word חזרה is from the root ח-ז-ר which means "to hold back." In the context of these laws of inheritance it means "to go back."


R. Hirsch carries this idea further by stating that this distribution formula shows that the greatest acquisitions of parents and grandparents are children and grandchildren. These offspring are the witnesses of merit and the atonement for weakness and failure of the previous generation. The Jews who left Egypt with a strong belief in God had maintained their faith through the tribulations of slavery. Their faith failed through the long trek in the desert. But they produced a new and proud generation ready to enter God’s land and live in it according to God’s Torah. This generation would take over the land לשמות מטות אבותם, as heirs of the previous generation, in the זכות/merit of parents and grandparents, and as atoners of their failures.


Copyright © 2014, Matityahu Clark. All Rights Reserved. This is an excerpt from the forthcoming Hirsch At Your Table, a collection of brief divrei torah based on R. Samson Raphael Hirsch’s Torah Commentary.
Rabbi Matityahu Clark
Served in principal/director positions throughout North America. One of the founders of the Educator's Council of America, and former president of the Council for Jewish Education. Former Director of the Board of Jewish Education of Greater Washington.
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