TORAH SPARKS​: Parashat Pinchas


TORAH SPARKS (print friendly version)

Parashat Pinchas July 7, 2018 | 24 Tammuz 5778

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)

D’var Torah: Getting Your Just Deserts
Jason Lever, Conservative Yeshiva Student, Winter-Spring 2018

One who wishes to see each parasha as a coherent whole will find Parashat Pinchas particularly challenging. Its disparate threads include the end of the Pinchas story, a census, an episode where we learn that daughters can inherit their father’s property in the absence of a male heir, the ordination of Yehoshua as Moshe’s’ successor, and a detailed list of the daily, Shabbat, and holiday sacrifices.

For me, it is the idea of ‘just deserts’ that holds the entire parasha together – the idea that sooner or later, good or bad, everyone gets what they deserve. This starts with God rewarding Pinchas, son of Elazar and grandson of Aaron, for exacting “atonement for the children of Israel” (Bamidbar 26:13) by slaying a Midianite woman, Cozbi, along Zimri, “a prince of a father’s house,” from the tribe of Simeon, as we read in Parashat Balak last week. This stayed the plague that broke out when the Israelites fell into harlotry with the Moabite and Midianitish women, and joined them in worship of their God, Ba’al Peor. This merited Pinchas “the covenant of an everlasting priesthood” (26:13) and the parasha is named after him for this most holy of tasks. And for their attempt to harm Bnei Yisrael, God commands Moses to: “harass the Midianites, and smite them” (26: 17) to ensure they get their ‘just deserts’.

In order to assess the plague’s cost and prepare to enter/conquer the Land, Moshe ordered another census, nearly forty years after the first one, done just after leaving Egypt and before the building of the Mishkan (Shemot 30:11-16). Leaving out the Levites, who had special Mishkan-related duties and would not be allotted land, the people numbered 601,730 men aged over 20. Seeing how only the men “counted” for apportioning the Land, the daughters of Tzelafchad approached Moses and stated that their father had died leaving behind only daughters and requested to receive their father’s portion in the land of Israel. God accepts this entitlement, saying “if a man die and have no son, then ye shall cause his inheritance to pass unto his daughter” (27:8). Thus Tzelafchad’s daughters made sure that as long as they married within the tribe, their father and his descendants would get what they deserved.

But was it ‘just desserts’ for Moshe to have to ordain a successor to lead the people into the Land? Of the entire generation to leave Egypt, is it fair that Yehoshua escapes God’s punishment that Bnei Yisrael “shall surely die in the wilderness” (26:65) when Moshe does not? Both Moshe and Yehoshua have impressive records of service – Moshe to God, and Yehoshua to Moshe. But in the episode with the spies, Yehoshua particularly distinguishes himself when he and Calev maintain faith in both God and the people that they would succeed in conquering the Land.

Moshe’s faith at this point seems less certain. In last week’s parasha, Balak, it is inaction by Moshe in the face of the plague and Zimri’s brazen behavior that necessitated Pichas’ act of zealotry. And of course there is the story from two weeks ago in Parashat Hukkat when Moshe angrily struck the rock to bring forth water. Some commentators even see in Moshe’s decision to send spies to scout the Land some latent doubt, either in the Land, the People, or in God! What seems clear is that by this point in our narrative, Moshe’s capacity for faithful, patient, and decisive leadership has already begun to erode.

Looking at Moshe as an individual, it seems patently unfair that he only gets the tantalising consolation of seeing the Land from the top of Mount Nebo before he dies. Surely after his many contributions and acts of self-sacrifice, he deserved to enter the Land? But the Torah’s deeper message may be that the calculus of what is fair or not is different for leaders. The question is not whether an individual deserves to be the leader, it is whether this is the leader the people deserves. And the new generation that maintained their patience and faith even without witnessing the great miracles their parents had seen, deserved a leader who, even without speaking with God face-to-face as Moshe did, would maintain his patience and faith, and be able to represent the new generation’s needs going forwards.

For Discussion: Looking at society today, and our leaders, can we say that we have the kind of leaders we deserve?

Parashat Pinchas Self-Study
Vered Hollander-Goldfarb, Conservative Yeshiva Faculty

Our Parasha brings to a close the failure at Ba’al Peor and the zealotry of Pinchas. Now we prepare in various ways to enter the Land of Israel, and receive one more chapter of sacrifices – this time the special communal additions for Chagim (holidays), the source of our Maftir readings on those days.

1) God credits Pinchas, grandson of Aharon, with stopping God’s anger at the Israelites (for the story see 25:1-9). Would Pinchas not have taken action, God’s anger could have destroyed the entire people (25:10-11). Reconsider the story we read last week. What terrible thing was story actually about, and why do you think that it was not stressed when the story was told?

2) God tells Moshe to smite the Midianites because of their actions that ensnared the people of Israel (25:16- 26:2). However, Moshe’s next action seems to be conducting a census. Why does he not rush to fulfill God’s instructions against the Midianites?

3) As part of the census we are given echoes and snippets of stories. In 26:11 we are told that the children of Korach (chapter 16) did not die. Why do you think that the Torah mentions this? Why is it mentioned in this location, while discussing the tribe of Reuben, despite Korach being a Levite?

4) Based on the size of the tribes (men over 20), the land will be given out. The daughters of Tzelafchad approach Moshe and the leaders with the request to receive land since their father died leaving 5 daughters but no sons (27:1-11). Why do you think that the Torah chose to give their entire story, not simply state a clause in the law for such a situation?

5) After Moshe has done the census and settled land allocation system, he is told to go up on the mountain, see the land that the people will receive, and die as his brother did (27:12-14). Why do you think that God gives Moshe these instructions at this point?

D’var Haftarah: A Fateful Choice
Rabbi Mordechai Silverstein, Conservative Yeshiva Faculty

This Shabbat we read the first of the three special haftarot for the period between Shiva Asar b’Tammuz and Tisha b’Av. These haftarot, known as the “Tlata d’Poranuta” – the “Three [haftarot] of Admonition” mark the period between the breaching of the walls of the city of Jerusalem and the destruction of both the first and second Temples. The week’s haftarah is taken from the first and second chapters of the book of Jeremiah, which aside from marking Jeremiah’s initiation as a prophet, deal with the growing threat from the nation’s northern neighbor, Babylonia. Jeremiah, the prophet, foresaw the pending tragedy, while the rest of his brethren seemed oblivious to their tragic fate.

Jeremiah’s initiation as a prophet included the charge “to uproot and pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.” (1:10) This message is immediately followed by two anomalous visions: one, a branch of an almond tree (shaked) and the other, a “steaming pot (sir nafuah) tipped away from the north”. Each time, God explains, somewhat cryptically, how the images allude to the future. The almond branch plays on the word “shaked” which can also mean “watchful”, implying that the prophecy will soon come to fruition (1:11-12). Rashi explains this association: “Just as the almond tree brings forth its flowers earlier than any other tree, [so, too, the promised evil in the second image will soon break forth].”

The steaming pot is a bit less clear; with God only saying that it alludes to a disaster which will come from the north (1:13-14). Targum Yonatan, the Jewish Aramaic “translation” of Jeremiah, provides a fuller interpretation of the verse, rendering it: “a king who boils over like a pot… whose forces are aligned and ready to break forth from the north.” What seems clear is that both of Jeremiah’s visions are bleak foreshadows of doom.

Rabbi Benjamin Lau, however, offers a an entirely different take on these prophecies. He tries to link these visions to Jeremiah’s suggested mission. Since Jeremiah was charged “to build and to plant,” Lau asserts, perhaps these visions were intended to offer the nation options. The “shaked,” for Lau, represents life and growth, while the “sir nafuah” can be understood to be a “sira” – a thorn bush, something used to provide kindling for a fire, and meant to represent destruction. (Jeremiah – Goralo Shel Hozeh, pp. 40-41)

Seen this way, Jeremiah’s prophecy is not about Judah’s inevitable destruction. Rather, he was emphasizing that fateful times were ahead, and that making the right choice would be critical to their future. For Lau, Jeremiah’s vision is a reminder that one must see the world we live in clearly and critically, weighing our options wisely and, most importantly, to choose the path of life and not destruction.

Related Blog Posts