The overwhelming emphasis on life that is basic to Judaism can be discerned in the ritual that begins this week's parasha: the use of ashes from a slaughtered red heifer for purification of anyone who has come into contact with the dead.
The thirty-eight years of additional wandering in the wilderness (as a punishment for the lack of resolve to conquer Canaan) are passed over with little detail. Miriam dies in the fortieth year of the journey, and shortly thereafter, following Moses' impatience when he strikes a rock to bring forth water from it rather than speaking to it, Aaron dies as well.
The Israelites now prepare to conquer the land in earnest. Unable to enter directly from the west, they journey south of Edom to avoid conflict with Esau's descendents; they will enter the land from the east. They successfully repulse an attack from the king of Arad. But spiritual weariness and the recurrent complaint about lack of food and water result in divine punishment: fiery serpents whose stings are lethal. Moses fashions a brass serpent that is carried throughout the camp suspended from a pole; whoever looks upon it will recover from the snake bites.
The Israelites journey northward, conquering Emor and Bashan. The Israelites are now in possession of all territory east of the Jordan River from the Arnon to Mount Hermon. They encamp on the east bank of the Jordan, opposite the Moabite town of Jericho.
In the wake of the Israelite victories over several of the nations/city states on the eastern side of the Jordan River, Balak, King of Moab, is justifiably panicked about the prospect of military confrontation. Knowing he cannot defeat Israel on the battlefield, he hires Balaam, a sorcerer, to curse the Israelites.
On three successive occasions, from different sites overlooking the Israelite encampment, Balaam, at God's behest, praises and blesses the nation. Furious at this betrayal, Balak dismisses Balaam, but not before Balaam delivers a prophecy in which he foretells the defeat of Moab and others at the hands of Israel.
At the next campsite, Shittim, a large number of the Israelite men have sexual liaisons with Moabite and Midianite women and participate in the worship of Baal-Pe'or. While efforts are under way to slay the ringleaders of this group, a plague breaks out in the camp. In the midst of this chaotic situation, one Israelite man commits the brazen act of bringing a Midianite woman into his tent. Pinhas, son of Elazar, the High Priest, follows them and kills them, bringing an end to the plague in which 24,000 people died.