TORAH SPARKS​: Parashat Pinchas


TORAH SPARKS (print friendly version)

Parashat Pinchas Shabbat Mevarekhim Hahodesh
July 27, 2019 | 24 Tammuz 5779
Annual (Numbers 25:10-30:1): Etz Hayim p. 918; Hertz p. 686
Triennial (Numbers 28:16-30:1): Etz Hayim p. 931; Hertz p. 695
Haftarah (Jeremiah 1:2-2:3): Etz Hayim p. 968; Hertz p. 710

D’var Torah: E-lohei HaRuchot
Rabbi Mordechai Silverstein, Conservative Yeshiva Faculty

When Moshe Rabeinu was about to relinquish his leadership over the children of Israel, he addressed God in a most unusual way: “Moshe spoke to the Lord, saying, ‘Let the Lord, Source of the breath of all flesh (E-lohei Haruchot L’chol Basar), appoint someone over the community.'” (Bemidbar 27:15-16) This being the only place where God is referred to in this manner, the sages were inspired to find deeper meaning in this phrase.

But what could “Elohei Haruchot L’chol Basar” possibly mean? One answer became the basis for an unusual blessing. When a person sees a gathering of 600,000 Jews, (the number that tradition tells us was gathered at Mt. Sinai), one is supposed to say: “Blessed are You, Lord our God, who knows all secrets” (Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech HaOlam, Chacham HaRazim). According to our sages, God knows all secrets because God is E-lohei Haruchot L’chol Basar. The sages thus read “ruchot” here to mean “spirits.” A little midrashic sleight of hand – spirits means ideas, ideas means secrets – and E-lohei HaRuchot becomes Chacham HaRazim.

When we say this upon seeing 600,000 Jews, we are praising not only God’s capacity to know people’s thoughts – their secrets – but also tacitly calling attention to the uniqueness of each individual. As Rashi says in his comment on 27:15-16,: “Just as no two faces are alike, so, too, no two people’s ideas are alike.” But most important for our sages, God knowing the thoughts of every individual means that God values the individuality of each and every person. (See Bemidbar Rabbah 21:2).

This is a critical message for the Jewish people today. Not only do we come in all sizes, shapes and colors but more than anything else, we contain a multitude of different opinions. And the sages ask us to thank God for this diversity because it is not a foregone conclusion that we, or any people, could successfully contain such diversity and still be one nation. And so when confronted with 600,000 very different members of a single people, we are called upon to appreciate what a blessing it is.

Reading all of this back into the parashah sheds some light on what Moshe is doing. According to Rashi, he is saying: “Master of the Universe: “You, God, know what everybody thinks, even though no two people think alike. I want you to appoint a leader who will also be able to tolerate the opinions of others.” As hard as it had been for him to lead such a stubborn and unruly bunch, Moshe wants God to choose a successor who won’t just seek to suppress dissent.

This radical appreciation of diversity of opinion is essential to rabbinic thinking. Jewish sacred literature, whether it be the Talmud, Midrash and even Halakha (Jewish law) – is replete with debate and argument. Monolithic thought is Jewishly inauthentic. Why? Perhaps, they valued dialectic as a means for getting closer to the truth. Or perhaps they recognized the inherent limitations of any single human point of view when considering and describing the divine. Thus the Talmud presents multiple opinions and arguments, but few definitive answers.

What keeps these arguments from breeding hostility – what enables the center to hold – is a shared commitment to the questions themselves and the ultimate purpose of the argument. In Mishnah Avot (5:21) we learn: “Any dispute (mahloket) which is for Heaven’s sake (L’shem Shamayim) will endure; but any which is not for Heaven’s sake will not endure.” In rabbinic Hebrew, “L’Shem Shamayim” means “for the sake of God.” In modern Hebrew, we might understand it to mean “for positive reasons” or “for pure motives.”

Our tradition calls upon us to be radically accommodating of those who hold opposing views – even views we think are fundamentally incorrect and even dangerous – if they are sincerely offering their best answers to the great questions of the day. Although the back and forth can be frustrating and painful, and our instincts may be to either disengage from the other side, or actively suppress it, we are directed to walk in the way of God, and do our best to see the other side’s unique spirit, understand it’s thoughts, and appreciate it’s secrets.

Parashat Pinchas Self-Study
Vered Hollander-GoldfarbConservative Yeshiva Faculty

Our parashah opens with the rest of the story of the zealotry of Pinchas. We move on to 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) Pinchas, who in the previous parashah killed the couple composed of an Israelite man and Midianite woman, is given God’s covenant of peace as well as an eternal position as Kohanim for himself and his descendants (25:12-13). Why do you think that there might be questions about his position as Kohen? He is a direct descendant of Aharon!

2) A census is carried out, counting all men 20 years old and upward who could go to the armed forces (26:1-51). Why is this a logical criterion at this point of the people’s story (we are in the 40th year, positioned in trans-Jordan)?

3) Following the census Moshe is told ‘to these should the land be portioned out…’ (26:52-56). What is the message in giving land to those who were counted as part of the armed forces? Who would be excluded?

4) The daughters of Tzelofhad approached Moshe with their case: Their father died with no sons but had 5 daughters. Why should his name be reduced from his people? let his daughters have his land! (27:1-11). What does their request add to our understanding of the meaning of having a land-holding? What might be the logic of not giving land to daughters?

5) Moshe is told to go up and see the land, but he will die on the mountain. No response is heard from Moshe, but he asks God to appoint a person who will go and come before the people, so that they will not be like sheep without a shepherd (27:12-17). What do we learn about Moshe from this passage?

D’var Haftarah: Yirmiyahu’s Challenge
Rabbi Mordechai Silverstein, Conservative Yeshiva Faculty

This past week, the period of the year known as the Three Weeks or Bein HaMeitzarim (Between the Straits), commemorates the days between when the walls of Jerusalem were breached during the period of the Second Temple through to the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem. One of the liturgical markers for this period is the reading of three special haftaroth on the three Shabbatot which precedes Tisha b’Av. In the first of these haftarot, God initiates Yirmiyahu, who is known as the prophet of the destruction of the First Temple, into his role as a prophet.

The opening words of the prophecy present us with Yirmiyahu’s lineage: “Yirmiyahu the son of Hilkiah of the priests that were in Anatot in the land of Benjamin.” (1:1) There is a rabbinic tradition which links Yirmiyahu with a heroine from a much earlier biblical story, Rahab the prostitute, who is known to us from the story of the conquest of Jericho. In that story, Rahab rescues the two spies sent by Yehoshua to reconnoiter the city and moreover, asserts her loyalty and faith in God, who rescued the children of Israel from Egypt. (Pesikta d’Rav Kahana 13:5 Mandelbaum ed. pp. 228-9)

This association led one rabbinic sage to make a profound moral pronouncement to explain Yirmiyahu’s role as a harbinger of the destruction of the Temple: “Said Rabbi Abba bar Kahana: … There will come along the son of the woman who sinned and mended her deeds and reprove the goodly son who has tainted his deeds.” (Pesikta 13:4, pp. 227-8) For Rabbi Abba, Yirmiyahu is the son (great great grandson) of Rahab who has been sent to challenge the sinful behavior of the children of Israel.

While obviously, Rabbi Abba’s teaching is based on creative genealogy, the point he is trying to make is poetically moralistic. The offspring of a reformed sinner is the one who challenges the moral deficiencies of those of supposed moral “pedigree” who have fallen into sinful ways. The irony here is intentionally biting and not surprising from the sages. The sages often play with presuppositions about status, turning them on their head. Yirmiyahu, who heralds from the lowliest of roots, comes to challenge those who consider themselves the top society. This is meant as a reminder for all of us that social status is no guarantee of dignity in life; what matters are our actions.

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