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Parashat Pinhas
July 12, 2014 – 14 Tammuz 5774

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 Adam Rosenbaum
Charleston, South Carolina

After zealously stopping the Israelite plague at Baal-Peor, Pinhas is rewarded with a Divine covenant of friendship, which will be passed down to his priestly descendants. God commands Moses to defeat the Midianites for their role in the Israelites’ recent idolatry.

Moses and Eleazar, the High Priest, are commanded to take a census of Israelites aged 20 and over -- an accounting of the children of the Exodus generation. Only Joshua and Caleb will experience both the Exodus and the conquest of Canaan.

The five daughters of Zelophehad ask that the inheritance of their father -- who did not have a son -- be handed to them. God grants the request, setting a future precedent.

Knowing that his days are numbered, Moses asks God to assign a successor. Following God's directive, Moses lays his hands upon Joshua, ordaining him as the next human Israelite leader. The details of sacrificial offerings for Shabbat, Rosh Hodesh, Passover, Shavuot, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot and Shmini Atzeret are outlined.

Theme #1: Give Peace a Chance

“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 ...’” (Numbers 25:11-12)

Pinhas gets an immediate reward for bringing a dramatic conclusion to the Israelite incident at Ba’al Pe’or.

What is God’s reaction when a human being takes the law into his own hands? … A human being becomes involved in the balance of divine emotion, and the divine anger is vented by the actions of that person, and not by the action of God. It is as if Pinhas saves God from an act which, if He had done it, He would have regretted. -- Yochanan Muffs, Love and Joy

By deftly alluding to this very painful passage, then, the bris ceremony subtly introduces the whole question of passionate devotion to the Jewish community. Jewish tradition recognizes that there are very few parents for whom the bris is not an anxious moment. … It reminds us of Pinhas, and effectively asks: How much are we willing to do for causes that are important to us? What in life is so sacred to us that we would risk all for it? Which causes are so important to us that we will let no one stand in their way? As we formally welcome a new child to the Jewish community, are we going to transmit those passions to him? -- Daniel Gordis, God Was Not in the Fire

Even though Pinhas was so zealous in the cause of the Lord, he remained “in the midst of them”; he remained “in the midst” of the people of Israel, refusing to set himself apart from them in any manner. -- Rabbi Isaac of Warka

Questions for Discussion:

Yochanan Muffs points out that the difference between the incident of Pinhas and other instances of Israelite rebellion is that, instead of God threatening complete destruction of the Chosen People (and partially following through on some occasions), Pinhas does the “dirty work” for God. Might this incident explain why God is willing to offer a pact of friendship? After all, God never again threatens Israel's entire destruction in the Hebrew Bible; is this covenant of peace as much for God as for Pinhas?

Daniel Gordis tells us that, while we might be justifiably uncomfortable with the zeal that Pinhas displays, there is something refreshing about a person willing to put everything on the line for the sake of a cause that is important to him. As Gordis asks, how do we best teach the spirit reflected by Martin Luther King, Jr. (that if a person does not have a cause he is willing to die for, he has not found a reason to live) to our descendants?

Rabbi Isaac of Warka realizes that, in many cases, zealous people separate themselves from their communities, especially when they feel their societies have gone astray. Pinhas, however, sticks with the Israelites. When we feel like withdrawing from a group that frustrates us, what kinds of things can we do to enable us to re-join? Is there, nevertheless, some value in withdrawing from time to time so that we might rejoin our communities with renewed vigor?

Theme #2: The Descendants (Well, Some of Them)

Descendants of Gad by their clans … of Ozni, the clan of the Oznites ... (Numbers 26:15a, 16a)

Descendants of Judah by their clans: of Shelah ... (Numbers 26:20)

The name of Asher’s daughter was Serah. (Numbers 26:46)

The genealogy of the generation that will enter the Promised Land has a handful of curiosities, some of which refer to seemingly minor characters from earlier in our Torah text.

[Rashi says that this is really the family of Etzbon.] The tribe of Gad resided near the tribes of Reuben and Simeon, who had wicked people among them: Datan, Abiram, and the 250 people from Korah’s congregation, all from the tribe of Reuben. Zimri and his friends were from the tribe of Simeon. Nevertheless the children of Gad did not learn from their wicked ways or listen to them. For this reason they are called Etzbon [Hebrew, “finger”], an allusion to the fact that they put their fingers in their ears. But now, after the wicked have departed and all of them have returned in repentance, they have removed the fingers from their ears and are called Ozni [Hebrew, “ears”], as we read in Proverbs 15:31, “One whose ear heeds the discipline of life, lodges among the wise.” -- Shnei Luchot Ha-Brit

While our expectations are thus focused on Shelah, the last remaining son, his brothers’ fate suggests that his future, too, may be at risk. For Judah to withhold Shelah is what any parent might do, but he thereby violates God’s will, forcing Tamar to contrive a plan in order to obtain the son to whom she was entitled. By protecting his youngest son, Judah ironically sealed his own fate. Through all of this, Shelah himself plays no role. His passivity befits a youngest child and points to the incident’s denouement. (Intriguingly, one of Shelah’s sons bears the same name (Er) as his father’s older brother.). -- Frederick E. Greenspahn, When Brothers Dwell Together

Among the 69 [people] who accompanied Jacob into Egypt were, as recounted in Genesis 46:17. Serah might have remained merely a name in this list if not for a curious parallel. For in another list, in Numbers 26:46, that of the census taken by Moses in the wilderness the name Serah bat Asher appears again. … What are we to make of the fact that the same name appears in two lists separated by at least 200 years? From our perspective, it might be discounted as a coincidence. After all, Asher was a respectable name, and it is certainly possible that someone named Asher might name his daughter Serah. But from the point of view of the ancient rabbis … they were the same person. … Serah broke the news to Jacob [that Joseph was still alive], to play the harp for Jacob and sing him a little song, with the words “Joseph is alive, Joseph is alive.” … [Jacob] blessed her with such a great blessing that she lived as long as she did! -- Howard Schwartz, Tree of Souls: The Mythology of Judaism

Questions for Discussion:

Shnei Luchot Ha-Brit refers to people who try to ignore Judaism’s expectation that we follow a proper path, referring to the image of people putting their fingers in their ears to try to ignore the call to repent. When do we, as a society, metaphorically put our fingers in our ears to try to shield ourselves from the needs of our communities? What causes us to react in this way? What does it take for us to remove our fingers and listen clearly?

Frederick E. Greenspahn recalls the character of Shelah, whose father, Judah, refused to betroth him to Tamar because Shelah’s two older brothers had died after marrying her. We discover in today’s Torah portion that Shelah names one of his sons after one of his brothers, Er, but not after his other brother, Onan. What kinds of questions emerge from this fact? Can we imagine the relationship between Shelah and his brothers? Does it say something about the reasons for each of the brothers dying, and how Shelah might feel differently about these incidents?

Howard Schwartz notes that Serah appears in two different biblical genealogies from vastly different time periods. Rather than assuming that this is a scribal error, Schwartz marvels at the ability of biblical commentators to determine that Serah lived an unnaturally long life, linking her to the moment that Jacob learns that his son Joseph is still alive in Egypt. Does a connection with the stories of our patriarchs help the stories of our Torah come full-circle? Is there a benefit of believing that there is someone about to enter Canaan who was also alive prior to the Israelites’ arrival in Egypt?


 
 
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