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Torah Sparks

July 7, 2007 – 21 Tammuz 5767

Annual: Numbers 25:10 – 30:1 (Etz Hayim, p. 918; Hertz p. 686)
Triennial: Numbers 28:16 – 30:1 (Etz Hayim, p. 924; Hertz p. 695)
Haftarah: Jeremiah 1:1 – 2:3 (Etz Hayim, p. 968; Hertz p. 710)

Prepared by Rabbi Avram Kogen

Summary of the Parashah

Following the incident related at the end of last week’s parashah, God commends Pinhas and designates his descendants for divine service. To this day, the memory of Pinhas is invoked within the liturgy recited at a brit milah, the covenant of Jewish circumcision.

We are now near the end of the 40 years of traveling through the desert. In anticipation of taking possession of the Promised Land, a second census is to be taken. Evidently, the size of each tribe’s territory is to be determined by the size of its population, while the location assigned to each tribe is to be determined by lot. The tribe of Levi, dispersed among the other tribes, is an exception.

A special problem is raised by the five daughters of Zelophehad, a member of the tribe of Menasheh. Zelophehad had died without leaving any sons and his daughters wish to inherit his portion of land. (The generally accepted practice at that time was for sons to inherit land and for a daughter to become a part of her husband’s tribe upon her marriage.) After Moses had an opportunity for divine consultation, the daughters’ petition was granted. (When this caused problems for the tribe, however, some modifications were stipulated. See Numbers, chapter 36.)

God spells out to Moses that he will not be allowed to enter the Promised Land. Moses raises concerns about continuity of leadership (see below), and these concerns are addressed.

The balance of this week’s parashah is an outline of the sacrifices prescribed to be brought daily and on special occasions.

Topic #1: Treansition of Leadership

After God tells Moses that his life is near its end, and that he will die without the opportunity to lead the Israelites into the Promised Land, Moses responds by expressing a concern for the continuity of leadership. He accepts the decree that he will not personally complete the journey with the Israelites, but he needs to know that a successor will be in place, so that the Lord’s community may not be like sheep that have no shepherd. (27:17)

Moses’ selfless concern for the needs of his people is indeed striking. God responds by designating Joshua as Moses’ successor. Moses is further directed:

Invest him with some of your authority, so that the whole Israelite community may obey. (27:20)

In turn, according to Midrash Rabbah, Moses made this request of God regarding the appointment of a new leader:

The request which Moses made of the Holy One, blessed be He, in the hour of his death: He says to Him: ‘Sovereign of the Universe! The mind of every individual is revealed and known to You. The minds of Your children are not like unto one another. Now that I am taking leave of them, appoint over them, I pray You, a leader who shall bear with each one of them as his temperament requires. (Numbers Rabbah XXI:2)

Did Moses have to explain this need to God? We assume not. Why then did the midrash include this request? What does it tell us about how a leader should lead?

In our day, we choose leaders for our congregations, schools and community institutions. In what ways is the process outlined in the Torah reading similar to the process of assuring continuity of spiritual leadership in our congregations? In what ways does it differ? Have we improved upon this model? Is there anything that we can learn from the process outlined in our parashah?

Topic #2: Are Sacrifices Barbaric?

Chapters 28 and 29 are devoted entirely to outlining the sacrifices to be brought at the central place of worship on ordinary days and on the various holy days. We are far removed from the sacrificial system, since there have been no authorized animal sacrifices in Judaism for more than 19 centuries. Because we have moved on to other forms of worship, we are tempted to dismiss the sacrificial system as primitive. In light of the content of this week’s Torah reading, it may be appropriate for us to attempt to understand the sacrificial system on its own terms, without letting our twenty-first century values exercise an automatic veto upon the religious activities of our ancestors.

Consider the following passage, written by W. Gunther Plaut, a contemporary Reform rabbi and scholar:

What do moderns consider “primitive” about such rituals? Doubtless, the pre-biblical origins of sacrifice go back to beliefs that the gods desired the food for their consumption. But the Torah itself no longer gives any warrant for the continuation of such beliefs, and Ps. 50:8 ff. expressly disavows them. Most likely it is the public nature of the ancient slaughtering process that is repellent to current tastes. We prefer to hide the procedure behind the walls of abattoirs where the animals are killed in a fashion no less bloody, but without making it necessary for the consumer to witness the life-and-death cycle which goes into his pleasurable nourishment. Moreover, even when we share with others in the eating process, we do not generally experience any of the genuinely worthy emotions which were usually engendered by the sacrifices of old. In the root meaning of the English word, we do not “sacrifice” (i.e., render holy) anything we eat.

This does not mean that our age ought to be ready for any reconsideration of cultic sacrifice. It does suggest that when seen in its own context the biblical order of animal offerings was a genuine form of worship that cannot be quickly dismissed with prejudicial contemporary judgments. (The Torah: A Modern Commentary, p. 1218)

What did people in ancient times seek to express through the offering of a sacrifice?

Why was it considered important that the sacrifice represent the finest quality specimen that a person or a community had to offer?

It has been said that in our era prayer is designed to take the place of sacrifice. Do we offer enough of ourselves, in praying, to make this happen? How might we seek to heighten the devotional component of our prayer services?

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