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Torah Sparks

July 19, 2008 – 17 Tammuz 5768

Annual: Numbers 25:10 – 30:1 (Etz Hayim, p. 918; Hertz p. 686)
Triennial: Numbers 25:10 – 26:51 (Etz Hayim, p. 918; Hertz p. 686)
Haftarah: I Kings 18:46 – 19:21 (Etz Hayim, p. 938; Hertz p. 699)

Prepared by Rabbi Joyce Newmark
Teaneck, New Jersey

Torah Portion Summary

God rewards Pinhas for his zealous action by granting him His pact of friendship (or covenant of peace) and His “pact of priesthood for all time.” God then tells Moses to attack and defeat the Midianites for their role in enticing the Israelites into sin.

After the plague that killed some 24,000 Israelites, God tells Moses and Eleazar to take a census of the Israelite men who are 20 and older according to their ancestral houses. This census was to be used to apportion the land. The Levites are counted separately because they would not receive a share of the land.

Five sisters, the daughters of a man named Zelophehad, approach Moses and the other leaders. They explain that their father died without sons and they want to claim his share of the land. Moses asks God what to do, and God tells him that the women have made a just claim. Moreover, whenever a man dies without a son, his property shall be inherited by his daughters. If there is no daughter, the property will be inherited by other male relatives.

God tells Moses to ascend Mount Avarim, from which he will be able to see the land before he dies. Moses asks God to select a worthy successor and God tells Moses to appoint Joshua as the one who will lead the people after his death.

God instructs Moses concerning the daily sacrifices and the additional (musaf) offerings for Shabbat, Rosh Hodesh, and festivals.

Zealous for God?

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Pinhas, son of Eleazar son of Aaron the priest, has turned back My wrath from the Israelites by displaying among them his passion for Me, so that I did not wipe out the Israelite people in My passion. Say, therefore, ‘I grant him My pact of friendship. It shall be for him and his descendents after him a pact of priesthood for all time, because he took impassioned action for his God, thus making expiation for the Israelites.’” (Bamidbar 25:10-13)

  1. Mishnah: One who cohabits with an Aramean woman, the zealous may attack him. Gemara: But the sages do not look with favor upon this. Now, was Pinhas regarded unfavorably by the sages? Rabbi Yuda ben Pazzi said: “They were ready to excommunicate him had the Holy Spirit not sprung forward and said, ‘It shall be for him and his descendents after him a pact of priesthood for all time.’” (Yerushalmi Sanhedrin 9:7)
  2. Such a deed must be animated by a genuine, unadulterated spirit of zeal to advance the glory of God. In that case, who can tell whether the perpetrator is not really prompted by some selfish motive, maintaining that he is doing it for the sake of God, when he has actually committed murder? That is why the sages wished to excommunicate Pinhas, had not the Holy Spirit testified that his zeal for God was genuine. (Torah Temimah (Rabbi Baruch Epstein, 1860-1942, Russia) on Yerushalmi Sanhedrin 9:7)
  3. Rav Hisda said, if [a zealot] comes to consult, we do not instruct him to do so... Moreover, if Zimri had separated from her and Pinhas had killed him, he [Pinhas] would have been executed because of him [i.e., the killing was only justified because Zimri and Cozbi were actively engaged in their offense at the moment they were killed]. And if Zimri had turned and killed Pinhas, Zimri would not have been executed because Pinhas was a rodef [a pursuer, one who is pursuing another person in order to commit murder]. (Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 82a)
  4. The law is that a person who first asks whether he can act as Pinhas did is told that he may not follow that example. Only if he acts without asking in advance, because of an internal drive to rid the world of this aberration, is he considered blameless. From this we see that the only true zealotry is that which burns in a person because he is unable to tolerate evil. A person who is “zealous” because he was “fired up” by another person – even if that person is his rebbi – is not a true zealot. (Rabbi Y.L. Maimon, 1875-1962, Lithuania and Israel)

Sparks for Discussion

Today we are all too familiar with those who claim it is permitted, even admirable, to kill in the name of God. The rabbis enacted legal barriers to prevent others from emulating Pinhas. According to the Babylonian Talmud, if Pinhas had not acted at the precise moment he did, he would have been considered a murderer. The Torah Temima adds that Pinhas was held blameless only because his intentions were absolutely pure. Do you think it is ever possible for a human being to act from completely pure motives, with no hint of hatred, greed, desire for fame and glory, or the hope of Heaven? Is it even possible for a human being to be completely sure of his or her own motives?

Pinhas, Eleazar’s son and Aaron’s grandson, was already a kohein, a priest. How do you understand God granting him “a pact of priesthood for all time”? Was this, in fact, meant as a reward? Was it intended as a counterbalance to Pinhas’s zealotry? Is Pinhas meant to serve as a role model or a warning?

Lost Sheep

The Lord said to Moses and to Eleazar son of Aaron the priest, “Take a census of the whole Israelite community from the age of twenty years up, by their ancestral houses, all Israelites able to bear arms.” (Bamidbar 26:1-2)

  1. A parable. This may be likened to a shepherd into whose flock wolves entered and killed some of them, and he counted them to know the number of the remaining sheep. Another explanation: When they went forth out of Egypt and were given over to Moses, they were given over to him numbered; now when the time approached for Moses to die and to return his flock, he returned them numbered. Rashi [Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki, 1040-1105, France])
  2. Parshat Pinchas recounts the very first time God spoke to Elazar after his father Aaron passed away. As his first order of duty he was instructed to count all the Jews over the age of 20. Is there any significance to this being his very first task?... Rashi compares this counting to a shepherd counting his beloved flock after a disaster. The counting therefore symbolizes God’s concern for his people after a recent plague. But it could also be teaching the newly instated leader a critical lesson: Care about each and every one of your people, because they all count. (Rabbi Shlomo Ressler, LeLamed, Inc., 2004)
  3. When Moses our teacher was tending Jethro’s flock in the wilderness, a lamb scampered off and Moses followed it until it approached a shelter under a rock. As the lamb reached the shelter, it came upon a pool of water and stopped to drink. When Moses caught up with it he said, “I did not know that you ran away because you were thirsty. Now you must be tired.” So he hoisted the lamb on his shoulder and started walking back with it. The Holy One then said: Because you showed such compassion in tending the flock of a mortal, as you live, you shall become shepherd of Israel, the flock that is Mine. (Shemot Rabbah 2:2)

Sparks for Discussion

Every community, shul, or school has a few members who do not quite fit in, whether because of age, family status, income, disability, or just personal quirks. What can the leaders of the community do to help these outsiders feel included and to help the “insiders” be more welcoming? What can individuals do to help outsiders fit in? When, if ever, is it acceptable for a community to stop trying to make accommodations for those who do not fit?

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