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Torah Sparks

PARASHAT PINHAS
July 14, 2012 – 24 Tammuz 5772

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 Joseph Prouser

Our parashah opens with its namesake, Pinchas, receiving a divine reward – a hereditary priesthood and permanent “covenant of peace” – in recognition of his zeal in summarily executing an Israelite man and his Midianite paramour. The couple is named here for the first time – they are Zimri ben Salu and Cozbi bat Zur. Moses is commanded to harass the Midianites for their deceptive and corrupting influence on the Israelites.

A detailed census of the Israelite population is carried out, to be used in apportioning tribal shares in the Promised Land – a process that is addressed immediately after the census.

Allotting the land properly sparks a moral and legal crisis. Five sisters, the daughters of Zelophehad, approach Moses. They protest the law of inheritance, which provided only for male heirs. Zelophehad left no male heirs, the sisters explain, and his property will be lost, absorbed by the tribe, if his daughters are not permitted to inherit it. Moses seeks divine guidance, and God instructs him to grant the five sisters inheritance rights, further establishing this test case as a binding precedent, showing that in the absence of male heirs daughters may inherit their father’s property. Beyond the narrow purview of the case, the passage is early confirmation of the need for interpretation and evolution of biblical law, as well as a milestone in the legal enfranchisement of the women of Israel.

Family inheritance matters are followed immediately by the question of succession in national leadership. Moses is informed that he will die in the wilderness before reaching the land of Canaan. He asks God to provide a successor, and so Joshua – “a man of spirit” or “an inspired man”– is appointed.

The rest of parashat Pinchas is devoted to the daily sacrifices, the festival calendar, and the sacrificial offerings associated with all of those sacred observances. Much of this section is excerpted for public reading as the maftir aliyah on the festivals, holy days, and rosh chodesh.

Theme #1: “Thank God I’m Old”

“The name of Asher’s daughter was Serach.” (Numbers 26:46)

Study: Derash

“This inexplicable mention of Serach here (and in Genesis 46:17 and Chronicles 7:30) implies that she played an important role in Israel’s memory. However, the Torah does not preserve her story.” (Tamara Cohn Eskenazi, Andrea L. Weiss, The Torah: A Women’s Commentary)

“Nine were assumed into Paradise alive. Among them was Serach daughter of Asher.” (Derech Eretz Zuta)

“She brought Jacob the news: ‘Joseph is still alive.’” (Targum Yonatan, Genesis 46:17)

“Jacob transmitted secret foreknowledge of the redemption from Egypt to Joseph, who transmitted it to his brothers. Asher son of Jacob in turn transmitted this knowledge to his daughter Serach, who was still alive at the time of the Exodus.” (Midrash Shemot Rabbah)

“Serach daughter of Asher alone remained of Joseph’s generation, and she showed Moses where Joseph was buried: ‘The Egyptians made him a metal coffin, which they sank in the Nile in this spot.’” (Mechilta)

“Rabbi Yochanan was sitting and expounding how, when the Red Sea was divided, the water formed a wall. He said it was like latticework. Serach objected: ‘I was there, and it was like glass.’” (Pesikta d’Rav Kahana)

“’Then a wise woman called from the city, “Listen! Listen! Tell Joab, ‘Come here, that I may speak to you’ (2 Samuel 20:16). That was Serach daughter of Asher.” (Midrash Bereishit Rabbah)

Questions for Discussion

The lack of Scriptural data on Serach has sparked a rich and imaginative body of rabbinic literature speculating about her contributions to the people Israel. What is the significance of her storied longevity, which allowed her to interact with Moses, King David’s commanding general, and – still centuries later – Rabbi Yochanan?

According to Targum Yonatan, it was Serach who brought the joyful news of her uncle Joseph’s survival to her grandfather Jacob. How does this midrash offer a model for the relationship between today’s Jewish children and their grandparents?

How do the descriptions of Serach by Pesikta d’Rav Kahana and Bereishit Rabbah anticipate the role that women play in the Jewish community today? Why might such progressive views have informed sacred texts of our distant past?

Of all the ways that Serach, who already was very old, might have assisted or supported Moses, why would the Mechilta suggest her role in locating Joseph’s remains?

What achievements, actions, or contributions make us worthy of being remembered in the annals of the Jewish people, as Serach is?

Theme #2: “I Like Your Style”

“Moses spoke to the Lord, saying, ‘Let the Lord, Source of the breath of all flesh, appoint someone over the community who shall go out before them and come in before them, and who shall take them out and bring them in, so that the Lord’s community may not be like sheep that have no shepherd.’ And the Lord answered Moses, ‘Single out Joshua son of Nun, a man in whom there is spirit, and lay your hand upon him. Have him stand before Eleazar the priest and before the whole community, and commission him in their sight.’” (Numbers 27:15-19)

Study: Derash

“A true leader must ‘go out before’ his people and not trail behind them. He must raise them to his level and not allow himself to descend to theirs. He must ‘go out before them’ and ‘come in before them,’ always at the head of his people. He must have them follow him, and not keep looking back to see what they want and then follow their wishes.” (Avnei Ezel)

“A true leader in Israel is one who goes before Israel and teaches them the ways of the Lord, even if this should make him unpopular and the target of criticism from the man in the street.” (Ma’ayanah Shel Torah, after Rabbi Israel Salanter) “‘A man in whom there is spirit.’ A leader who would conduct himself based on the spiritual condition of each and every individual.” (Rashi)

“Said the Lord to Moses: ‘Take for yourself Joshua the son of Nun, a man in whom there is spirit, because only he who knows his own spirit can have knowledge also of the spirit of others.’” (Rabbi Y. Hurwitz)

“If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more, and become more, you are a leader.” (John Quincy Adams)

Questions for Discussion

While these verses provide us with insight into Joshua’s character, they also illustrate Moses’ strengths as a leader. Realizing his tenure is coming to an end, his first response is to secure a suitable successor. How do our congregations and communities similarly assure the availability of a cadre of prospective leaders?

How is a leader responsibly to balance her or his own vision with the needs, desires, and attitudes of the community? When is it necessary to risk popularity or standing, and when is it appropriate to gauge the preferences of those the leader is to lead?

What does it mean to know your own spirit (see Rabbi Hurwitz)? How is this quality critical in Jewish spiritual leaders? In what way is it to be attributed to Joshua?

How do the qualifications for religious or moral leaders differ from the qualities we seek in political leaders? To which is John Quincy Adams’ definition of leadership more applicable?

How are religious leaders today to balance Rashi’s vision of individualized spiritual care and guidance with the need for communal standards and clarity of mission?

Historic Note

In Parashat Pinchas, read on July 14, 2012, God rewards Pinchas for his zeal in avenging God’s honor by attacking and summarily executing a wayward Israelite and his Midianite paramour. Pinchas, God tells Moses, “has turned back my wrath from the Israelites by displaying among them his passion for Me.” By so doing, Pinchas secured “expiation for the Israelites.” Rashi explains that the phrase b’kino et kinati (his passion for Me) “always denotes someone motivated to take vengeance for some matter; in Old French, ‘enprenement.’” On July 14, 1789, French mobs stormed the Bastille, the notorious prison fortress that had become the symbol of royal repression and excess. “Bastille Day” is the French national holiday celebrating freedom and independence. It is customary for the French president to grant pardons for petty offenses – a measure of expiation – on this day of national pride.

Halachah L’Maaseh

In her responsum on the “Three Weeks,” Rabbi Diana Villa (“Ask the Rabbi” #82) describes mourning practices customarily observed during the period between the fasts of the Seventeenth of Tammuz and the Ninth of Av. She writes that Ashkenai Jews do not get married, get haircuts, or wear new clothes. The latter restriction precludes recitation of the joyful blessing, shehechiyanu. For similar reasons, Sephardim also do not eat new fruit (that is, for the first time in the season) during the Three Weeks. Rabbi Villa rules further: “One should refrain from live music during the Three Weeks. Other authorities take a lenient position and allow listening to recorded music. The reason for this is that listening to recorded music is so commonplace today, that it is not considered particularly joyful or celebratory.” In response to a specific question regarding children’s ballet and swimming lessons, she concludes: “Stopping for three weeks would potentially be detrimental. Since classes are ongoing, serve an educational purpose, and are not merely for pleasure, they should be allowed except on Tishah B’Av itself.” Rabbi Villa notes that these doleful practices have been extended and expanded over the centuries: “According to the Talmud, these mourning customs apply only to the week of Tishah B’Av itself (Taanit 29B).


 
 
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