Torah Readings for Saturday, July 30, 2016
25:10-30:1 Bamidbar (Numbers)
Pinchas is the eighth sedrah in Bamidbar. Pinchas takes its name from the first word of the second verse in the sedrah, “Pinchas son of Elazar son of Aaron the Kohein, turned back My wrath from upon the children of Israel.” Since the word Pinchas is a proper noun, the name of the sedrah is the same in both Hebrew and English. According to Plaut, Pinchas was a name of Egyptian origin meaning the “Nubian” or the “Negro.” We have seen this before. For example, there are those who contend that Moshe’s name was also of Egyptian origin. Interestingly, in some English translations, the name of the sedrah is “Pinchas” but the name used in the text is “Phinehas.” I have found no explanation for this apparent anomaly. The sedrah may be viewed as a series of events and activities designed to prepare the new generation for entering into the Promised Land. As such, it includes the following five parts: Pinchas and the Priesthood, The Census, Inheritance Laws, Moshe’s Successor, and The Sacrificial Ordinances.
Pinchas and the Priesthood (25:10-18)
Last week’s sedrah ended with Pinchas stabbing an Israelite and his Midianite consort. This week’s sedrah picks up where that narrative left off. God rewards Pinchas’ zeal by announcing that he and his descendants will inherit the position of Kohein Gadol. In an attempt to offer further justification for Pinchas’ action and God’s reward, the sedrah re-visits the crime, taking pains to identify the decedents. The Israelite is Zimri, son of a chieftain of the tribe of Shimon. Not only had Zimri flagrantly violated the commandments, but he had also betrayed his role as a leader. As we have seen several times before, much is expected of leaders and their punishment exceeds that which would normally be meted out for a crime. The Midianite is Cozbi, the daughter of a Midianite chieftain. The Midianites were so determined to conquer the Israelites that they would even go so far as to allow the daughters of their leaders to provide sexual favors to undermine the moral fabric of the nation. In other words, the threat was great, which necessitated extreme action on the part of Pinchas. The story of Pinchas is quite troubling for modern readers. In a time when we have seen fanatics justifying mass murder by saying they are carrying out the will of God, we are more than just a little uncomfortable with this story. This note of discomfort is not new. According to one commentator, Talmudists in the Middle Ages are supposed to have said that if Pinchas had come to them as a Court and presented his evidence, they would not have enforced the death penalty. At the same time, we know that there are times when killing is called for. Anyone who remembers the events of the 1930’s must agree that a little steel and gunpowder instead of the soft words of Munich might have averted the firestorm of World War II. And Jews still bridle at Ghandi’s suggestions that we should have passively accepted the Holocaust instead of rising up in armed rebellion whenever possible.
There are several other twists and turns in the story of Pinchas. His willingness to take a life is reminiscent of Moshe and the killing of the taskmaster. In the opening verses of the sedrah, the Torah takes pain to identify Pinchas as the son of Elazar and the grandson of Aaron. This detail is necessary because some may consider Pinchas to have a stain on his family name. Elazar, his father, had married one of Jethro’s daughters (Shemot 6: 25). This means that the blood of the Midianite enemies flowed through the veins of Pinchas. Also, this story hearkens back to the story of Dinah. At that time, Shimon and Levi drew the swords and stabbed to death all those who had defiled their sister and all of their kinsmen as well. Now we have another story of sexual defilement involving the descendants of Shimon and Levi. But in this case the two are on opposite sides of this issue. Possibly this moral slippage is what accounts for the declining fortunes of the tribe of Shimon that we read about later in the Torah. Finally, the Torah has strict rules about keeping a Kohein away from a dead body. Yet here, Pinchas is in the tent with two dead bodies. Regardless of how one interprets the story, the first part of the sedrah does settle the issue of who will be Kohein Gadol after the Israelites enter the Promised Land.
The Census (26:1-65)
Bamidbar began with a census and it ends with a census. The headcount at the end of Bamidbar served two practical purposes. First, it gave the Israelites an idea as to how many fighting men would be available in their upcoming battles. Secondly, and possibly more accurately, the census was necessary to ensure the proper allotment the parcels of land once the tribes entered Canaan. The location of each tribe’s land was determined by lot. Population determined the size of the tribal allotment (26:52-56). The idea that the latter reason for this second census is the most important of the two is reinforced by the fact that the headcount of the Levites, the tribe that gets no land, comes after all of their other tribes are counted and the rules of allotting the land are stated. For the bean counters among us, the Israelites decreased in number during their sojourn in the Wilderness. The first count was 603,550 (2:32) while the second count was 601,730 (26:51), which means a net loss of 1,820. At any rate, the second part of the sedrah has taken care of tribal allotments once the Israelites enter the Promised Land. You might want to consult the notes in the Plaut Chumash for an alternative count that is more credible if less traditional.
Inheritance Laws (27:1-11)
Once again we come to one of those quaint interludes where we find out that God and Moshe had not thought of all of the laws we would need. (Remember the story of Pesach Shenni.) The five daughters of a man name Tzlaphchad come to Moshe and tell him that their father had died and that he had had no sons. Therefore, they want to inherit his portion. Apparently God and Moshe had not considered the possibility of men dying without having sons, so Moshe had to have a chat with God about this problem. The law was expanded so that the daughters could inherit but they must marry within their tribe to ensure the tribal integrity of the land. Furthermore, Moshe provides a list of alternative inheritance patterns designed to deal with a variety of family situations (27:8-11). Having described how the land is to be initially divided the third part of the sedrah tells us what the laws of inheritance will be once the Israelites enter the Promised Land.
Moshe’s Successor (27:12-23)
Moshe knows that he is not going to lead the people into the Promised Land. Being a responsible leader, he asks God to name a successor while he is alive to ensure the orderly transfer of power. God tells Moshe that Joshua, the son of Nun, will be his successor. In accordance with the ceremony commanded by God, Moshe goes before Elazar and lays his hands upon Joshua as a sign of the transfer of power. Elazar will be the spiritual leader. Joshua will be the political leader, acting in accord with rulings of the Kohein Gadol and the will of God. So the fourth part of the sedrah has taken care of the leadership needs of the Israelites when they enter the Promised Land.
The Sacrificial Ordinances (28:1-30:1)
This is not the first time we have seen the holiday calendar nor is it the first time that we have seen lists of sacrifices. According to traditional commentators, this list of sacrifices is a compilation of the Musaf or additional offerings for the different holidays. Since the Musaf follows the tamid or daily offering, the Torah first addresses this most common of sacrifices before moving on to describing the various Musaf sacrifices. Another thing that makes this holiday calendar and its attendant list of sacrifices unique is its placement in the narrative. It is contained in a sedrah designed to prepare the new generation for its impending entrance into the Promised Land. Observance of the holidays and the offering of sacrifices are not expressions of personal religious belief. They are an expression of what is later called our sense of “peoplehood.” The sacrifices are an expression of our relationship with God, but they are also an expression of our national identity. The importance of Shabbat is reinforced since it is listed first. In listing Rosh Chodesh second, we can see that the observance of the New Moon was much more important to our ancestors than it is to us. The holiday schedule follows the familiar pattern, starting with Pesach and working its way through to Shemini Atzeres. In terms of the sacrifices themselves, those listed for Sukkoth are the most fascinating. They require a staggering total of 98 lambs and 70 bullocks. The seventy bullocks represent thanksgiving offerings on behalf of the seventy nations of the world. The number of bullocks offered each day decreases in number as a sign of their removal from closeness to God. Also of note is the fact that the Musaf Offering for Shemini Atzeres is the same as the offering for Rosh Hashanah and is a reminder of the unique relationship that Israel enjoys with God. This section of the Torah has provided the basis for many of our current religious practices. With the destruction of the Temple, prayer has taken the place of the sacrificial system. Various parts of the worship service are designed to stand in the place of these sacrifices (see Themes below). There is a cyclical tone to the sedrah. It begins with the selection of the lineage for the Kohein Gadol. It ends by enumerating the sacrifices, the offering of which will become the main responsibility of this religious functionary.
400. The specification of the laws of inheritance when a man dies without a son (27:8-11).
401. The requirement that a lamb should be offered as a burnt offering every morning and evening (28:30).
402. The specification of an additional offering for Shabbat (28:9-11, 26-31).
403. The specification of an additional offering for Rosh Chodesh (28:9-11, 26-31).
404. The specification of an additional offering on Shavuot (28:9-11, 26-31).
405. The commandment to blow the shofar on Rosh Hashanah (29:1).
Biblical Literacy by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin
In the section about the Census we are reminded that the marriage of Moshe’s parents was forbidden after Sinai. According to Vayikra an aunt and a nephew may not marry. Jochebed was Amram’s aunt. This is not the first time we see the difference of world with and without Torah.
Women in the Torah
Except for the five daughters of Tzlaphchad, Serach is the only other woman mentioned in the national census. She is identified as the daughter of Asher, which if true, would have made her a very old woman indeed. She is probably mentioned because there was no male heir for her family so she too would be entitled to an inheritance under the laws as revised by Moshe with God’s approval. As to Tzlaphchad, the father of the outspoken five, we know very little about him except that he died and that he was not one of those who rebelled against Moshe. Some claim that he was the man stoned for gathering wood on Shabbat. However, the rabbis take a dim view of making such a charge. First, the Torah does not provide us with this information. And even if it were true, how can we speak ill of a man whose sin the Torah will not mention?
The Levitical Census
In the separate counting of the Levites, The Torah mentions two more women: Jochebed, Moshe’s mother, and Miriam, Moshe’s sister. The Torah also lists all four of Aaron’s sons including the two who died and the reason for their ignominious passing. But there is no mention of the sons of Moshe. It is one thing not to give them any honors, but to not even mention them when taking a tally of the people seems to be an omission worthy of commentary, discussion or at least a fanciful mystical tale. There is a message in the absence of the sons and some day we will find it.
While there are many Rabbinic tales about why we blow the Shofar on Rosh Hashanah, the real reason is found in this sedrah. God commanded us to do it. “In the seventh month, on the first day of the month…You shall observe it as a day when the horn is sounded.” (29:1)
The Daily Service
The tamid was the daily sacrifice offered in the morning and at twilight (28:4). This gave rise to the Shacharit (morning) and Minchah (afternoon) services. The Amidah (the Standing Prayer or the Eighteen Benedictions) is recited in place of the tamid.
Shabbat and Holiday Services
Since the Torah called for an additional or Musaf sacrifice on Shabbat and the Holidays; traditional Jewish services have a Musaf Service, which follows the Torah Service. It is a variation on the basic Amidah and includes references to the sacrifices brought on the holiday being observed.
During the course of the year, we have seen that there is a special second Torah reading on various festivals including Rosh Chodesh. These special readings come from Pinchas, specifically chapters 28 and 29.
Rest is an integral part of observing Jewish holidays. However there are different levels of rest, which means there are different levels of activities we can engage in on different holidays. How do we know this? On Shabbat and Yom Kippur we are told “You shall do no work” but on the other holidays we are told “You shall not work at your occupations.” For the traditional Jew the variations in these commands make a significant different in their observances.
Updated Inheritance Laws
The Jewish view on the right of daughters to inherit has undergone considerable change over the centuries. The Rabbis recognized that widows and daughters were entitled to a portion of the estate. Finally, the chief rabbinate of what was then Palestine and now is Israel ruled that daughters had equal rights along with sons to any inheritance.
Separation of Powers
The American Founding Fathers were very conscious of the danger of giving one person or institution too much power. In an attempt to avoid tyranny, they established a limited government with a written constitution that divided power between the central government and the state governments. It also divided the power of the central government into three branches. The Biblical model of government showed a predilection for some of these same concepts, even if they were not articulated in the language of modern political science. This week’s sedrah opens with the establishment of the line of the religious leadership - the High Priest. Later the sedrah deals with the issue of the civil leadership when it describes the ascension of Joshua. This follows the pattern of the original divide where Aaron was the High Priest and Moshe was the “civil leader.” Even Moshe was not allowed to hold both offices.
There is supposed to be some inter-relationship between the seemingly disparate materials contained in the various weekly portions. At least this week’s portion demonstrates one easy connection. The reading begins with the establishment of the Priestly line. It ends with a description of the sacrifices which are the raison d’etre for the existence of the Kohanim.
What’s In A Name Part II
Last week we noted that there were six weekly portions that contained the names of individuals. The question was why these six? Consider this as one possible explanation. The Six are actually three pairs that get us to look at different facets of the same issue:
1. Righteousness - Noah and the Life of Sarah; he was a “righteous man in his generation” while she was so righteous that God told Abraham to listen to her.
2. Inter-faith relations - Yitro and Balak. Both of these men were non-Jews. They both treated the Jewish people differently and in turn were treated differently by the Jewish people.
3. Leadership - Korach and Pinchas. How do we know when a person is worthy of leadership? When is it acceptable to rebel? Is it ever appropriate to defy authority? Is there something in the stories about these two men that might help us discern the difference between those who are pursuing “their own agenda” under the smoke screen of acting for the common good and those who really are acting for the common good? Korach sought to overthrow the legitimate authority. Pinchas acted to protect the legitimate authority. The trick is to understand what makes authority legitimate and of that are Shabbat Kiddush discussions made.
The daughters of Tzelafchad came to Moses as a group to make their case. But the Torah identifies them as individuals and gives us the names of these five women who were willing to challenge the system and speak up for their rights and the rights of all of the daughters of Israel. One has to wonder why, in our own times when women are asserting their right to be full members of the Jewish community with no differentiation for gender we do not see more children named Machlah, No'ah, Chaglah, Milkah and Tirtzah. Certainly each member of this quintet is worthy of being so honored.
Adding or SubtractingWhen we celebrate Chanukah, we add a candle for each night of celebration. This would seem to be the normal way of doing such things. However, when it comes to offering the bullocks during Sukkoth, the Torah commands us to move in the opposite direction (19:12-35). On the first day we are to offer thirteen bullocks, on the second day we are to offer twelve bullocks and so on in descending order until on the eighth day we are to offer only one bullock. Surely there is a simple explanation for what appears to be “adding by decreasing” and I look forward to somebody providing it.
More Than Counting HeadsThe census in this week’s reading is more than a simple head count. There are side-comments that turn it into a message about the importance of obeying God’s law. In counting the tribe of Reuben, Dathan and Abiram are mentioned by name and their rebellion is recalled (26: 9). Korach is also mentioned but we are reminded that penitence can save the sinner which is why the sons of Korach did not suffer the fate of their father (26:9-11). In counting the sons of Judah, Er and Onan are mentioned by name and reference is made to their deaths. This would seem to be an oblique reminder of the story of Judah and Tamar; a subtle rebuke that would attach itself to the whole house of King David. In counting the half-tribe of Manasseh, Zelophehad and all five his daughters are mentioned by name with no explanation. Since the episode the five daughters is not described until later in the reading, it would seem that the by the time the Torah was canonized in its final form, the story was well-known and those who would hear the names of the five daughters would automatically know the importance of the reference.
QuestionsWhat the Torah presents as a given can sometimes be more of a puzzle for the reader. This sedrah raises a myriad of profound questions. Is it ever acceptable to take a human life in the name of God? What is the role of women? If the role of women needs changing, how do we do this while maintaining Jewish tradition? What is the purpose of the sacrifices? These are but a few of the items we could discuss this year, or next year or for many years to come. There is a lot to Pinchas and this guide is meant only to hit the highlights, to stimulate not to stifle.
Recurring ImagesThe last chapters of Bamidbar (Numbers) starting with “Pinchas” mark the end of a historic narrative that began with the first chapter of Shemot (Exodus). In his commentary on “Pinchas” entitled “An Angry Young Man”, Gershom Gorenberg reminds of the images in this reading that we have already seen in the lifetime of Moses. However, as Gorenberg points out, the images may be similar, but the outcomes are different. For example both Moses and Zimri had taken Midianite women. The former is remembered as Moshe Rabbenu, the latter as whoremaster. Why? Moses married Zipporah before there was Torah and she accepted the Law when it was given. Zimri had taken Cozbi after the giving of the Torah and he was going to forsake the Law to follow her.
In another example, as young men Moses and Pinchas each killed a human being. Moses killed an Egyptian task master who was beating a Jew to death. He acted on his own in a place where there was no judicial system to protect the victim or punish the perpetrator. Pinchas acted because his sense of morality was offended, not to save another life. Also, he took the law into his own hands in a place where God, through Moses, had established a judicial system. There is a time for quick action, especially when the legal system appears inoperative and the good order of society is threatened. God’s response to the quick action of Pinchas contained a reward and punishment for his zealous act. He and his descendants will serve as the High Priests. The reward is obvious - Pinchas got one of the top two jobs in Israelite Hierarchy. The punishment is a little more opaque. By making Pinchas High Priest, God put a whole set of controls on his behavior. The position of High Priest might be powerful, but the High Priest must behave in a very proscribed, moral manner. Moreover, as powerful as he was, the High Priest was dependent upon the people for his physical existence. If the people did not bring the sacrifices and pay the taxes, Pinchas and his descendants would literally not have survived. The zealous man of action would now be bound by the velvet chord of official responsibility. He could still be zealous, but only in a manner that conformed to God’s laws as given at Sinai.
Commentators agree that Pinchas was justified in acting because Zimri and the others were threatening the newly created rule of Torah law and morality. Like any new creation, ethical monotheism was extremely fragile. And that is the same reason that Pinchas was not justified in acting. The newly created system revealed through Moses contained a legal and judicial system designed to deal with immorality and idolatry. With this system in place, men were no longer free to dispense justice as they saw fit (i.e., the behavior of Dinah’s brothers). When a grandson of Aaron took the law into his hands, no matter how justified he might have felt in doing so, the new order was threatened. For those of you who are looking for some slick harmonizing conclusion - stop reading now. There is none. For this am Haaretz, these are puzzling issues to which I ultimately seek refuge in the famed line from Rashi, “of this I do not know.”
The Man: Since the Book of Jeremiah has provided us with six haftarot already this year, you probably feel like you know all there is to know about Jeremiah. Therefore, this introduction will be comparatively short. Jeremiah is considered one of the Three Major Prophets. He lived during the last part of the seventh century and the first part of the sixth century B.C.E. He preached for about forty years from 626 B.C.E. until 580 B.C.E. This means he saw the destruction of the Northern Kingdom, the rise of the Babylonian Empire, the destruction of the Temple (586 B.C.E.) and the dispersal of the Jews to Babylonia and Egypt. As we have said before, Jeremiah must have been the loneliest and unhappiest of men. Nobody would heed his warnings. He was an outcast, a pariah. Worse yet, all the misery he predicted came to pass yet he took no pleasure in being right. In the end he was carried off to the one place he did not want to go, Egypt. The land that had enslaved his ancestors and that had betrayed his contemporaries became his graveyard.
The Message: The haftarah comes from the opening verses of the Book of Jeremiah. It starts with biographical data about the prophet. Then there is a shift to God summoning Jeremiah to take up his prophetic mission. In the tradition of Moshe, Jeremiah does not want to accept the charge. But God is insistent. He reassures Jeremiah that He, God, will be with Jeremiah no matter how the people respond. The language here, like much that we find in Jeremiah, is too powerful to paraphrase. To get its full effect, read it aloud. God tells Jeremiah that He will destroy the people for their evil behavior and their idolatry. And it is Jeremiah’s job to let them know what is about to happen. In keeping with the tradition that a haftarah should not end on a negative note, the reading continues with three sentences from chapter two. The prophet reminds the people that God will always love them and will destroy those who do evil to the House of Israel.
Theme-Link: There is no link between the sedrah and the haftarah. The connection is between the haftarah and the calendar. Between the Seventeenth of Tammuz and the Ninth of Av we read “Telata D’puranuta” an Aramaic term referring to The Three (Haftarot) of Rebuke or Admonition, of which this is the first. The texts of these three Haftarot all contain strong condemnations of the people’s behavior and warn of national destruction. Appropriately enough, two of the three come from the Prophet Jeremiah who is traditionally credited with authoring the Book of Lamentations, which is read when we commemorate the destruction of the Temple. The third comes from Isaiah.
Jeremiah Quotes: As the partridge sitteth on eggs, and hatcheth them not; so he that getteth riches, and not by right, shall leave them in the midst of his days. Jeremiah: 17. 11
The prophets prophesy falsely, and the priests bear rule by their means; and my people love to have it so: and what will ye do in the end thereof? Jeremiah: 5. 31
Stand ye in the ways, and see, and ask for the old paths, where is the good way, and walk therein. Jeremiah: 6. 16
Copyright; July, 2016 Mitchell A. Levin