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Torah Sparks

Parashat Pinhas
June 29, 2013 – 21 Tammuz 5773

Annual: Numbers 25:10-30:1 (Etz Hayim p. 918; Hertz p. 686)
Triennial: Num. 28:16-30:1 (Etz Hayim p. 931; Hertz p. 695)
Haftarah: Jeremiah 1:1-2:3 (Etz Hayim p. 968; Hertz p. 710)

Prepared by Rabbi Joseph Prouser
(Temple Emanuel of North Jersey; Franklin Lakes, NJ)

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 brazen couple is named here for the first time – they are Zimri ben Salu and Cozbi bat Zur. Moses is commanded further 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.

Theme #1: "Misplaced Mollifier"

"When the plague was over…" (Numbers 25:19 – sometimes given as 25:18b or 26:1a)

Derash: Study

"The verse breaks off mid-sentence." (Masoretic Note: piska b'emtza pasuk)

"The Masoretic note… indicates a break in the text at this point, which may mean that originally the account of the war against Midian followed (chap. 31). And since war requires draft registration, the account of the census (chap. 26) was interposed. Philo, in fact, follows his account of chapter 25 with chapter 31. The juxtaposition of the second census (chap. 26) to this clause implies, however, that the plague wiped out the entire generation that had left Egypt." (Jacob Milgrom, JPS Commentary)

"Why is there a break in the middle of the census's beginning verse? What connection is the Torah creating between the end of the plague and counting the people... The census itself implies that it is part of preparation for distributing the land among the people (the view of the Ramban, Ibn Ezra and Chizkuni). Still, if so, why does the verse associate the census with the plague of Pe'or? The Chizkuni explains that the sudden insertion of the piska be-emtza pasuk serves to divide the history of the Jewish people into B.B.P. (before Ba'al Pe'or) and A.B.P. (after Ba'al Pe'or). From here on, no one else will die before entering the land. Finally, the Jewish people are ready to make their long-awaited journey to Kena'an. The paragraph break underscores the significance of the transition that unfolds after the last victim of the Ba'al Pe'or calamity has been buried." (Rabbi Yaakov Beasley)

"Commentators explain this gap as trying to separate the people from the dangers inherent in having a mention of the plague and the census so close together… Professor E.A. Speiser said there was a '... fear of having one's name recorded in lists that might be put to ominous use by unknown powers ....' This fear was present in ancient times and continues to this very day on the internet." (Eldad Ganin)

"Oh, I don't know. That digression business got on my nerves. I don't know. The trouble with me is, I like it when somebody digresses. It's more interesting and all." (J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye)

Questions for Discussion

If the sentence fragment comprising our odd verse represents a "peek" into the mind of the Biblical narrator… what was that narrator thinking?!

Dividing history into "B.B.P." and "A.B.P." (see Rabbi Beasley's comment) would have made perfect sense to the generation of the wilderness. What events in modern Jewish history are similarly defining milestones? What events in your own life could be seen as "piska b'emtza pasuk"?

Consider Salinger: Does the digression of the census actually pique the reader's attention? Does the abrupt conclusion given the plague episode actually serve to focus our attention on its meaning and import? That is, is the sudden "break" – far from a corruption of the "original" Biblical text (a la Milgrom) – actually an artful literary form?

What might have motivated the Biblical Author (Editor? Redactor?) to insert the census before chapter 31's account of warfare? Dramatic effect for purposes of building suspense? Concern that a battle scene immediately following a devastating plague was too much "bad news" in quick succession… requiring a literary and emotional change of pace? A desire to personalize the conflict to come?

Respond to Eldad Ganin's analysis of the "gap" in the Biblical text following (or inserted into) our verse. What subjects generate fear, anxiety, discomfort, and a (perhaps misplaced) desire for personal distance – personal "space" and anonymity – today?

Theme #2: "Vacant Lot"

"The land, moreover, is to be apportioned by lot; and the allotment is to be made according to the listings of their ancestral tribes. Each portion shall be arranged by lot, whether for larger or smaller groups." (Numbers 26:55-56)

Derash: Study

"The lot would speak… so demonstrating that the division was determined by Divine Spirit. It is for this reason the verse says al pi ha-goral ('by lot' – literally, 'by the mouth of the lot' – JHP)." (Rashi)

"So, too, when each tribe subdivided its assigned holdings among its individual constituents, they did so by lot." (Sforno)

"Casting lots seems too ordinary a method to assign the eternal estate of the tribes of Israel, and a direct order of Hashem seems more suitable. But this lot was made with the understanding that the outcome would be nothing less than Hashem's own decision… Had the distribution of land been made merely by the word of Moshe or some later prophet, there might have been dissatisfaction and complaints that the allocation was influenced by personal motives. The lot removed the possibility of such suspicion." (Rabbi Avigdor Miller)

"There are the circumstances and experiences that 'befall' us in a seemingly random and arbitrary manner. A person will often mistake these for 'chance.' But these are no less the hand of Divine Providence than the rational side of life. In fact, they express a more profound involvement by God in our lives – an involvement that is too lofty to be captured by any logical formula, so that our earthly eyes can perceive it only as an 'arbitrary' casting of lots. These are gifts that are too potent to be tapped with the conventional tools of intellect and instinct; we can only open ourselves to their possibilities." (Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson of Lubavitch)

"Nothing happens by chance, my friend… No such thing as luck. A meaning behind every little thing, and such a meaning behind this. Part for you, part for me, may not see it all real clear right now, but we will, before long." (Richard Bach, Nothing by Chance: A Gypsy Pilot's Adventures in Modern America)

Questions for Discussion

Compare this passage with other references to "goral" (lots) in the Bible: selection of the sacrificial goat on Yom Kippur (Leviticus 16), identification of Jonah as having offended God, the "lottery" at the heart of the Book of Esther, and the "conviction" of Achan in Joshua 7:18. How do these texts illuminate our Parashah?

What does the not infrequent reference to "goral" in Scripture say about the national self-perception of the People Israel?

What is the function of Rashi's imaginative depiction of the lots as imbued with the power of speech?

How is Richard Bach's lyrical meditation on chance especially applicable to our verse? What is the "meaning" that will, in time, emerge from the assignment of tribal territories? How might the Lubavitcher Rebbe respond to this question?

Why does Sforno insist that the lottery system was continued by each individual tribe in their further distribution of property?

Historic Note

Parashat Pinchas, read on June 29, 2013, describes at length the sacrificial offerings to be brought as part of daily worship and in observance of Shabbat, Rosh Chodesh, and Holy Days. These offerings occupied much of the sacrificial cult carried out for centuries in Jerusalem's Temple. On June 29, 1967 – forty-six years ago today – the State of Israel, in the wake of the Six-Day War, removed the barriers which had kept Jews from the Temple Mount since the founding of the State, thereby reunifying the City of Jerusalem.

Halachah L'Maaseh

Moses' first thought upon confronting his own mortality, his own imminent demise, was the need for a proper leader to succeed him. Joshua was identified as the ideal choice, inaugurating the long historic chain of rabbinic ordination. Rabbi David Golinkin has identified ten qualities of the ideal rabbi: 1) God-fearing and observant; 2) well-versed in the Talmud and halakhah; 3) well versed in all areas of Jewish Studies; 4) with a broad secular education; 5) involved with the public at large, in contact with rabbis and Jews from all streams in Judaism; 6) an outstanding preacher; 7) a Zionist [if serving in Israel, the ideal rabbi has served in the Israeli army]; 8) The ideal rabbi must be an excellent teacher, able to teach children, teenagers, adults; 9) familiar with psychology and counseling and informed about welfare institutions; 10) The ideal rabbi must find the middle road, as Rabbi Israel Salanter said: "A rabbi with whom no one disagrees is not a rabbi; a rabbi with whom everyone disagrees is not a mentsch."

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