It is the job of an author to make his or her book as clear and understandable as possible. A guaranteed way to fail in this area is to make sudden, unannounced and unexplained changes in the chronological sequence of events in the story. Although the Torah obviously doesn’t follow the rules of literary works, since it nevertheless shares the same human audience it is subject to the same potential pitfalls. In the first quarter of the book of Bamidbar (Numbers), the Torah blatantly throws off the whole chronology, without explaining anything. The first line in the entire book specifies that the commandment to take a census was given in the second year since the Exodus, on the first day of the second month. Eight chapters later, in Parashat Baha’alotcha, the Torah discusses the Menorah and the Levites. It then abruptly digresses to discuss the Korban Pesach, the Passover Offering, that was to be carried out in the wilderness and specifies that this commandment was also given in the second year since the Exodus – but in the first month. Why would the Torah’s description of a commandment that was given in the first month be deferred until after its description of a commandment that wasn’t given until the second month? Why couldn’t the Torah just describe the Korban Pesach first and then proceed to what actually happened later?
According to Rashi, the Torah deviates from the expected chronological order to emphasize a fundamental point. First, it’s important to realize that the Korban Pesach that they were commanded about in the wilderness was actually a unique, one-time event. The Torah of course commands, in the book of Exodus, that the Jews must observe Passover with the Korban Pesach every year. That would only apply, however, once they arrived in the Land of Israel; as long as they remained in the wilderness there would be no Korban Pesach. The one exception was the time that they were specifically commanded to do so even though they were still in the wilderness. That is the commandment of the Korban Pesach that is referred to above, and the commandment that’s mention is delayed. To understand why, we must also understand when the next Korban Pesach was actually brought. Had the Bnei Yisrael not heeded the words of the spies, they would have entered the Land of Israel that year and there would have been no year that would pass without a Korban Pesach. Since they did accept the slanderous testimony of the spies, they did not arrive in Israel until forty years later. Their sin therefore delayed the observance of the Korban Pesach for that entire period. Rashi writes that this is why the Torah could not describe the commandment of the Korban Pesach first. The book of Bamidbar would then begin with and thereby call attention to something disgraceful about the Jewish people: that their sins caused that this commandment that is supposed to be observed annual was only observed once in forty years. This disgraceful fact was instead hidden deeper inside the book.
The Torah often repeats the same lesson multiple times, each time with a different nuance, to make sure we internalize and don’t miss out on an important lesson. In this instance, it teaches the need to conceal others’ shortcomings. It also demonstrates this lesson’s importance when it teaches it even at the expense of disrupting the Torah’s chronology and making it a more difficult book to read and comprehend. This relocation of the commandment of the Korban Pesach reminds us to ask ourselves: When we hear about someone’s shortcoming do we proceed to continue the chain of communication and notify someone else about it, or do we have the character that allows us to be the person that breaks the chain? Are we quick to bring up someone’s failure or incompetence in a particular area, or are we big enough to lock it up inside and keep it quiet? The Torah’s willingness to openly change the sequence of events in the book of Bamidbar can inspire us to be able to think big and make choices that reflect true maturity.