|Chronology seems to be less important to the Torah than it is to us. While we often take great pains to establish the sequence of particular events, the Torah’s narratives are sometimes arranged out of chronological order. This non-linear style of story-telling is affirmed by Rashi, the great 11th-century commentator, with his principle of Ein mukdam ume-uhar baTorah, which literally means “there is no ‘early’ and ‘late’ in the Torah.” Rashi will commonly invoke this principle to explain an otherwise inexplicable chain of events, or to identify a more logical narrative sequence.
For example, this week, we read of the Israelite observance of the first anniversary of Pesah, “in the second year from their exodus from Egpyt, in the first month” (Numbers 9:1). Last week, in Naso, we learned about the dedication of the Mishkan, which began on the first of that month and continued for 12 days. The original Pesah sacrifice, as we know from our own observance of Passover, began at twilight near the end of the 14th of that month, so the chronology fits–except for one factor. The Book of Numbers begins by telling us that the census of Israel’s military took place on the first day of the second month–not until after the events of our current chapter.
Why, says Rashi, is the story of Pesah in the Wilderness reported out of sequence? “Because it implies something disparaging to Israel–that during the forty years they were in the wilderness, they only offered this single Pesah sacrifice.” For whatever reasons, and none of them are valid excuses, Israel’s celebration of Pesah, their very first national festival, was lacking during most of their journey toward the Promised Land. The Torah isn’t proud of this neglectful behavior, so it doesn’t begin the story of the wilderness–Sefer Bemidbar–by drawing attention to an important ritual that will fall by the wayside for far too long.
The Torah here applies a typical human reaction to elements in our record that bring us discomfort and even shame. We say, maybe if we bury that piece of our past, it won’t come back to haunt us. It’s a natural instinct, and we do it all the time. But sooner or later, it’ll show up. Bemidbar chapter 9 may not precede chapter 1 as it should chronologically, but it isn’t entirely forgotten. And that forces us to confront Israel’s less-than-perfect behavior eventually. No one’s record is without blemish. How we respond when our mistakes come to the surface is in large measure how history will judge us.
In the Book of Joshua, standing on the brink of entering the Land, Israel takes the necessary steps to reinstate the Pesah sacrifice. It was 39 years late, but better late than never. Maybe the only important piece of the chronology is the ending point?