Pinchas: Rabbi Abraham
Torah Reading PINCHAS, Numbers 25:10-30:1
PINCHAS, PRINCE OF PEACE
“Pinchas son of Elazar son of Aaron the Priest turned away My wrath from upon the Children of Israel in his zealousness. Therefore say: I hereby give him My Covenant of Peace” (Numbers 25:11-12).
The opening verses of our parshah of PINCHAS follow immediately after the account of Pinchas’ heroic act given at the end of last week’s parshah, BALAK. The Prince of the tribe of Shimon was publicly flouting Moses’ authority by taking a Midianite princess for himself in front of his brothers, in front of Moses and in front of the whole Assembly of Israel. His claim was that if Moses could marry the daughter of the Priest of Midian, why should he not also be allowed to take a Midianite woman?
The humble Moses was speechless. The meaning of his marriage with Tzipporah was to exalted to be explained in a public forum. Nobody could remember the halachah. In the consternation over this public scandal, the law was concealed from everyone’s eyes. Everyone was weeping. The Prince of the tribe of Shimon was publicly flouting the prohibition against intermarriage by taking a Midianite princess into his tent, and political rectitude was saying “Let them”. The aim was to open the floodgates to casual relations with people of all nations without discrimination, leading to intermarriage, assimilation and the erasing of all boundaries between holy and profane.
There is profound irony in this challenge to the authority of Moses, the Levite. It was Jacob’s second-born, Shimon, who had joined his next younger brother, Levy, in the act of zealousness that earned them the anger of their father (Genesis Chapter 34, see UNIVERSAL TORAH #8 VAYISHLACH). This was the vengeance on the inhabitants of Shechem for the kidnapping of their sister Dinah. The inhabitants of Shechem had agreed to become circumcised, but for the wrong reason: it was not the Covenant of Abraham that they wanted, but the Israelite girls.
The present challenge to the Covenant of Abraham came from the wicked Bilaam, who advised Balak, king of the Moabites, that the way to undermine the holiness of Israel was by enticing the Israeli boys with their girls, who would then pull out their idols and make the Israelites worship them. Ironically, in this test, the Prince of the tribe of Shimon uses his characteristic trait of GEVURAH in zealous championship of complete personal freedom, challenging Moses’ Levitical zeal for the Covenant — which imposes restraints on the satisfaction of our physical appetites — and Moses was speechless.
Only Pinchas remembered — young Pinchas, the son of Elazar, who was now High Priest after his father, Aaron. Fear was keeping everyone else’s mouths gagged as the true Israelite code of morality was publicly mocked. Pinchas himself was in a minority of one. He was in mortal danger of being publicly lynched for daring to challenge contemporary political rectitude. Even so, he courageously took up his spear, went straight into the tent after them and pierced the two of them in the act through their private parts, bringing them out thereafter on the spear to show everyone.
The law that Pinchas championed is stated clearly by RAMBAM (Maimonides) in his Code. “An Israelite who has marital relations with an idol-worshipper from one of the other peoples or an Israelite woman who has marital relations with an idol-worshipper are liable to 40 lashes by Torah law. The Torah forbids only marriage, but one who has casual relations with a non-Israelite is liable to the penalty of lashes by rabbinical decree because it leads to marriage. Anyone who has relations with an idol-worshipper, whether in the context of marriage or casually, if he performed the act publicly, i.e. in front of ten or more Israelites, IF THE ZEALOUS ATTACK AND KILL HIM, THEY ARE PRAISEWORTHY AND VALIANT and this is a Law given to Moses on Sinai, and the proof is what Pinchas did to Zimri.”
This particular law about zeal is hedged with numerous qualifications: the zealot may only strike them at the moment of the act. If the zealot came to the Rabbinic Court and asked permission to kill, they do not give such a ruling. (Mishneh Torah, Issurey Biyah, Forbidden Relationships ch. 12, 1-8).
It is forbidden to take the law into one’s own hands. Only a person of the supreme purity and saintliness of Pinchas could do what he did. The point is not to legitimize killing, which has already gotten completely out of hand in the sad, bullet-torn, explosion-shattered world in which we live today. Far more important is to understand the actual severity of the crime for which the Torah allows a saint like Pinchas to single-handedly kill the perpetrators when this is absolutely necessary at that moment for the honor of G-d and the sanctity of the People of Israel. In the words of RAMBAM: “This practice (of casual relations and intermarriage) causes one to become attached to the idolaters, from whom the Holy One blessed be He has separated us, and to turn away from HaShem and betray Him” (ibid.)
Pinchas’ valor lay in standing up for what is right and true even though it flew in the face of the prevailing orthodoxy, and he was in mortal danger of getting lynched. Pinchas did not flinch from stating the Torah law, even when it was unpopular, and for this he was given G-d’s Covenant of Peace.
Our age is obsessed with the search for peace. How ironic that the more everyone runs after peace, the more it eludes us. Every plan that is supposed to bring peace seems to lead only to further strife and violence. Could it be that those who are so zealous for peace would be more effective if they were to apply their zeal to the search for G-d and His Torah? The authentic Israelite pathway to peace is recited daily at the end of the morning prayers: “Rabbi Elazar said in the name of Rabbi Chanina: The students of the wise increase peace in the world, as it says: ‘And all of your children are students of G-d, and great is the peace of your children’. Read the Hebrew word for children in that verse not as BANECHA, ‘your children’, but as ‘BONECHA’, your BUILDERS!’ ” The way to build true peace is through studying and keeping the Torah.
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INHERITING THE LAND
Approaching the end of the forty-years in the Wilderness, the new generation of the Children of Israel stood assembled in the plains of Moab near the Jordan River, facing Jericho, poised to enter the Promised Land. The land was to be divided among those counted in the census that G-d now commanded Moses to take. As we approach the conclusion of the Book of Numbers and come towards the Book of Deuteronomy, the theme of the Land of Israel and how we are to live in it becomes increasingly prominent. One of the first lessons we learn is from the fact that the land is to be divided fairly among all the people. The vision is one of a nation of equal, independent homestead owners possessing family pride as opposed to one in which a minority of wealthy property-owners exploit and manipulate a migrant population lacking strong family roots, alienated and cut off from the land.
In Torah law, land is considered the best and surest property — movables (let alone paper wealth) cannot compare. While sale and purchase of land takes up a sizeable part of Torah law, the sages counseled not to part with land whenever possible, and certainly not ancestral land. Land should be held and transferred from generation to generation. Our parshah introduces the Torah law of inheritance (see also Deuteronomy 21:16ff). The law was given by G-d to Moses in response to a question raised before him concerning inheritance by daughters. The question was raised by the daughters of Tzelaphchad, who had died of his own sin in the wilderness leaving no sons. They asked for their father’s share of the land to be given to them so that his family name should not be diminished among his brothers.
The daughters of Tzelaphchad longed and yearned for the Land of Isr. They could not bear the thought that their family would not have a part and a share in the land.
In the words of the Midrash: “When the daughters of Tzelaphchad heard that the Land was to be divided among the males but not the females, they all gathered together to take counsel. They said, ‘Not like the love of flesh and blood is the love of G-d. A person of flesh and blood has more love for the males than the females, but He who spoke and the world came into being is not that way. Males. females. His love is for all! As it is written: ‘His love is over ALL His works’ (Psalm 146)
The Midrash continues: ” . “Rabbi Nathan said: The power of women is more beautiful than the power of men. The men said, ‘Let us appoint a head and return to Egypt’ (Numbers 14), but the women said, ‘Give us a share of the land’ (Numbers 27:4).”
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THE MANTLE OF LEADERSHIP
Land may pass from father to son (or daughter) but leadership must pass not by inheritance (unless it is genuinely deserved) but from a true leader only to a true student. As we start to approach the end of the Torah, issues relating to the end of life (such as inheritance) are more to the fore. This is the case in our parshah, where Moses is instructed to ascend the mountain to see the Land for which he so yearned, after which he was to die.
Characteristically, Moses’ first thought at that moment was not for himself but for those he would be leaving behind. “And Moses said to HaShem: Let HaShem, the G-d of the spirits of all flesh, appoint a man over the Assembly, who will go out before them and come in before them and who will bring them out and bring them in, and the Assembly of HaShem will not be like a flock that has no shepherd” (Numbers 27:15-17).
The appointment of Joshua as Moses’ successor to lead the Children of Israel into the Land of Israel involves the mystery of SEMICHAH, the “laying on of hands” whereby the Master gives Torah authority to the Student. Joshua deserved this because of his assiduous devotion to Moses and his constant study of the Torah: “He had been Moses attendant from his youth” (Numbers 11:28) “and his attendant Joshua the son of Nun was a lad who would not move outside the tent”.
[Rabbi Nachman of Breslov explains the mystery of SEMICHAH and how the “hand” signifies the transfer of wisdom in Likutey Moharan Part I, Discourse 61 #2.]
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“AND THE LAND WILL GIVE ITS PRODUCE”
Directly after the account of the appointment of Joshua to lead the Children of Israel into the Land, the Torah enters into a lengthy section detailing the sacrifices in the Temple every day, on Shabbat, on the New Moon and on each of the festivals throughout the year. The juxtaposition of the two sections is explained in the commentary of RAMBAN, (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, Nachmanides). “Having said, ‘Among these you shall divide up land’, G-d completed the exposition of the law of the sacrifices that they should perform in the land.”
There is an integral connection between the inheritance of the Land and bringing sacrifices to the Temple every day, every week, every month and on every festival. The Temple is at the very center of the land in all three dimensions of existence: time, space and soul. The souls of the people who inhabit the land must to be focussed on the Temple both in terms of time and space. In terms of time, they must be focussed on the Temple through the services that must be performed at specific junctures in time: in the morning and afternoon (times of the daily sacrifices), on the Sabbath, on the New Moon, and particularly on the three pilgrim festivals, when the whole nation must come up to Jerusalem.
Space is intimately bound up with these very services in the Temple at these various junctures in time. This is because the Temple services are centered on the produce of the Land. Our parshah details the various sacrifices of lambs, oxen, wheat, oil and wine on the Temple Altar daily, on Shabbat, the New Moon and all the Festivals. The regular offering of these token gifts culled from the produce of the Land elevates and brings blessing to all of the fruits of the Land.
Unique among the offerings on the Altar are those on the festival of Succoth (“Tabernacles”). On the first day, the offerings included thirteen oxen, on the second day twelve, and so on. The total number of oxen offered on the seven days of the festival was seventy, corresponding to the seventy nations of the world, for whose blessing and welfare Israel is also charged with responsibility. It is our prayer that both Israel and the nations will quickly realize that peace and blessing will come only from the Temple services and not from empty peace plans.
On Succoth even the humblest of all has its place on the Altar: water. The Midrash tells us that at the time of creation, the waters cried out to G-d that everyone has a place on the Altar — oxen, sheep, wheat, barley, oil, wine. All except for water. The waters threatened to engulf the world until G-d promised them that on the festival of Succoth, Israel would offer a libation of humble water on the Altar, accompanied by SIMCHAS BEIS HASHO-EVA, “the Joy of the Water Drawing”, which was so great that it brought people to prophecy.
The water libation on Succoth is not written explicitly in the Torah but only allusively. Three seemingly minute anomalies in the Hebrew phrasing of the laws of the offerings of the second, sixth and seventh days of the festival of Succoth, enable us to trace the letters of the word Hebrew word MAYIM — WATER — running through the Hebrew text (see Rashi on Numbers 29:18).
May we constantly drink the waters of the Torah, “and this book of the Torah will not move from your mouth, and you shall meditate in it day and night in order to guard and perform all that is written in it, for then you will have success in your paths and then you will be wise” (Joshua 1:8).