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Torah Sparks

July 15, 2006 – 19 Tammuz 5766

Annual: Numbers 25:10 – 30:1 (Etz Hayim, p. 918; Hertz p. 686)
Triennial: Numbers 26:52 – 28:15 (Etz Hayim, p. 924; Hertz p. 690)
Haftarah: Jeremiah 1:1 – 2:3 (Etz Hayim, p. 968; Hertz p. 710)

Prepared by Rabbi Michael Gold
Congregation Beth Torah, Tamarac, FL

Department of Congregational Services
Rabbi Paul Drazen, Director


At the end of Hukkat, the previous parashah, we read how Pinchas, in a moment of zealous outrage, slew the ring leaders of a sexual orgy involving Moabite and Midianite women and Israelite men. His actions put a stop to a plague. God rewards Pinchas with a covenant of peace. God tells Moses to assail the Midianites and defeat them because of the actions of their women. This leads to some of the most difficult chapters in the Torah for moderns to understand, the leading of a war of revenge against the nation of Midian.

The Israelites take a second census of the people age twenty and up now that nearly forty years have passed since the first census. The count is taken by clans of each of the twelve tribes. The final number is 601,730, slightly fewer than the first census. As before, a census is taken of the tribe of Levi. Every one of the Israelite adults who left Egypt would die in the desert except Caleb and Joshua.

The five daughters of Zelophehad approach Moses and tell him that their father had died and left no sons. Since only men could inherit, their family allotment would be lost. Moses brings the case before the Lord. God adjusts the laws of inheritance – if a man dies leaving no sons, daughters inherit. If he has no children, his brothers inherit. Next come his father’s brothers followed by and other nearby relatives of the clan. God allows Moses to see the land, and tells him to appoint a successor to go before the people. Joshua the son of Nun is chosen.

The portion ends with a detailed list of the various offerings daily, on the Sabbath, on the New Moon, and on each day of the cycle of festivals. This portion is the most read section of the Torah, chanted throughout the year as the maftir aliya on the various festivals and rosh hodesh. These offerings are to be given at the stated times, together with any free will offerings. These are the laws that God commanded Moses.

Issue #1 - Controlling Lust

"Pinchas son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the priest, has turned back My wrath from the Israelites by displaying among them his passion for me." (Numbers 25:10)


  1. In last week’s Torah Sparks, we reviewed questions concerning controlling anger and greed. We identified both of these with the yetzer hara, the evil inclination. “Ben Zoma taught, Who is strong? Whoever can control his inclination.” (Avot 4:1) The story of Pinchas speaks to questions of lust, the sexual drive out of control. In Jewish tradition, the evil inclination, appetites out of control, is most frequently identified with sexual activity. Pinchas acted when Israelite men were tempted by the Midianites and forgot about the sexual morality which was central to the Torah’s vision.
  2. Is the sexual drive out of control in our community? Is recreational sex, informal sex or ‘hook-up’ sex, that is casual recreational sexual activity outside of any long term, monogamous relationships creating many of our social problems? As society has allowed the sexual drive to be answered without concern for relationship, how has that impacted breakdown of family? Has freer sexuality, without considering results and impacts of that activity, contributed to more transmitted diseases, teenage pregnancy, high rates of abortion? As a society, can we put that genie back in the battle and create a new, modern sexual ethic?
  3. Jewish tradition does not see the sexual drive as inherently evil. On the contrary, sex in the right circumstances, with the right partner, with the right attitude, is a mitzvah, something God wants us to do. In fact it is not only good but holy. Judaism always saw a lifetime of celibacy as sad and a healthy sexual life as important for human well-being. How do we make sex holy once again?

Issue #2 – The Self: Me or I

"Take the sum of all the congregation of the children of Israel, from twenty years old and upward, by their fathers’ houses, all that are able to go forth to war in Israel." (Numbers 26:2)


  1. In this week's portion, God ordered a second census taken of the Israelite people. Every male from age twenty and up was to be counted, obviously in preparation for a military conquest. The count was made by tribe and by family. People were defined by the tribe they are born into and by the parents who gave birth to them, not by who they really are.
  2. Albert Camus' novel The Stranger is the story of a man who passively lives his life in reaction to other people. His boss wants him to move from his home in Algiers to Paris, and he replies that it doesn’t matter whether he moves or not. His girlfriend wants to marry him, and he also tells her that it doesn't matter. He always chooses the easiest path. He is like the ball in a pinball machine, bouncing this way and that way with no volition of his own - until he murders a man on an Algiers beach.
  3. How often do we human beings live lives of passivity, simply reacting to others? How often do we find ourselves defined by other people? How often do we live our lives according to other people's expectations? How often do we choose the path of least resistance? How often are we objects of other people's lives, rather than subjects of our own lives?
  4. Sociologist George Herbert Mead, when speaking of the self, makes a distinction between the ‘I’ and the ‘me.' We are each uniquely an ‘I’ and each uniquely a ‘me.’ Our ‘me’ is our socially created self, the product of social positions, social influences and our own past choices. In each moment, however, our ‘I’ always transcends our ‘me.’ We are also an ‘I,’ that is, we create ourselves. How can we be the subject of our own lives?
  5. The Torah teaches that when God created us, God said, "Let us make man in our image according to our likeness." Why the plural? Perhaps the answer is that God did not create us as a finished product. We also must take responsibility to create ourselves.

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