Sunday, July 20, 2014

Torah Readings for Saturday, July 26, 2014 Masay


Torah Readings for Saturday, July 26, 2014

Masay
(33:1-36:13) Bamidbar (Numbers)

Masay is the tenth and final sedrah in Bamidbar.  The sedrah takes its name from the second Hebrew word in the first verse of the portion, “These are the journeys (Masay) of the Children of Israel.”  Masay may be divided into three sections - The Travelogue, Political and Social Institutions in the Promised Land, and The Conclusion.  Masay marks the end of Bamidbar.  It marks the end of the Israelites’ time in Bamidbar, in the Wilderness.  It also marks the end of the narrative of the Torah.  As you know from having read Devarim, the death of Moshe is the only additional piece of the story of the Israelites’ stay in the Wilderness that is not covered in Bamidbar.  Masay should be studied with this sense of journeys in mind if we are to grasp its full meaning.

The Travelogue (33:1-49) God commands Moshe to make a written record of the journeys through the Wilderness starting with the departure from Egypt and finishing with the encampment on the plains of Moab, across the Jordan from the Promised Land.  The text lists forty-two way stations or names forty-two journeys depending up which commentator you read.  Editors of various Chumashim all cite Rashi who contends that when you subtract the movement during the first and last years, there were only twenty different encampments during the remaining thirty-eight years.  This would indicate that there was really only a limited amount of travel by the ancient Israelites and that they spent a fairly long period of time in one spot.  This more sedentary view of things would certainly answer some of the earlier questions about how the Levites and Kohanim were able to pack and move the Tabernacle without any difficulty.  The text itself is quite spare, giving only the names of the stopping places.  It doesn’t mention the events that occurred at any of them such as the giving of the Ten Commandments, the appearance of Manna or the episode of the spies.  This would indicate that the names were well known to the reader and that the reader connected these places with certain historic events.  It would be like mentioning Pearl Harbor or Normandy.  Everybody knows without further explanation that one marked the start of World War II for the United States and the other is D-Day, the invasion of Europe.  Only when it comes to the mention of the stop at Mount Hor does the text describe the events connected with a particular place.  In this case it is the death of Aaron and the meeting with the king of Arad.  So far, I have not found an explanation for this apparent anomaly.  Yes, Aaron was a great man and his death is worth mentioning.  But why mention the king of Arad and not manna or the Ten Commandments?

Political and Social Institutions in the Promised Land (33:50-35:34) Having dispensed with the history lesson the sedrah now turns to political and social institutions to be adopted once the Israelites cross into the Promised Land.  First, Moshe describes the manner in which the land is to be conquered and divided (33:50-56).  The Israelites are to drive out the indigenous population and destroy their places of worship.  In a world of idol worshippers, the land of Israel will be the one place where there is no idolatry.  Here, only God will be worshipped in the manner He has commanded.  If the Israelites fail to do this, the inhabitants will harass the Israelites and God will add His own punishment for good measure.  There are those who think this portion was inserted at later time to explain the misery that befell the Israelites during the time of the Judges and/or to justify the wars waged by Saul and David.  Moshe announces that placement of the tribal lands will be by lot but the size of the allotment will be based on the population of the tribe.  The Torah then provides us with the boundaries of the land.  It is important to mark these boundaries now because there are many laws that only apply to Eretz Yisrael, the Land of Israel (34:1-15).  Also, the tribal apportionments, with the exception of those in Trans Jordan, will occur within this landmass.  The different Chumashim provide maps based on the description provided.  Unfortunately, there is some confusion about some of the boundaries since we are not sure where all of these places are.  This is especially true when it comes to fixing the northern border because there seems to be some controversy as to where Mount Hor is located.  We do know one thing for sure.  The Mount Hor mentioned here is not the same as the Mount Hor mentioned in connection with the death of Aaron.  Since the Torah specifically mentions Canaan, the author may have been trying to describe the land of Canaan when it was an eastern province or satrap of the Egyptians in the twelfth or thirteenth century.  We do recognize the broad outlines including the Mediterranean on the west, the Negev to the south and the Jordan River and Dead Sea to the east.  Having taken care of the land for the other tribes, Moshe now turns to the landless tribe of Levi (35:1-15).  The Levites may not own land.  One commentator says the decision to keep the Levites landless was based on the experience in Egypt.  There, the Priestly Class was a major landowner and sided with the wealthy over the common people.  By keeping them landless, the Levites should be a force for morality favoring neither the rich over the poor or vice versa.  But the Levites had to live some place so they are assigned forty-eight cities in which to live.  The Torah goes into some detail describing their land allotment.  The Stone Chumash provides three detailed sketches of the holdings based on the interpretations of Rashi, Ramban (Nachmanides) and Rambam (Maimonides).  Six of these cities were of a special character.  They were Cities of Refuge.  Three were to be on the east bank of the Jordan, where the two and one half tribes had settled.  The other three were to be on the western bank of the Jordan in the Promised Land.  The cities served two purposes.  They provided a place of sanctuary for somebody who had taken a life but whose guilt or innocence had not been determined by a court of law.  They also provided a place of sanctuary for one whom the courts had decided was guilty of taking a life but not in a manner that warranted the death penalty.  This second category of miscreants was to remain confined until the death of the Kohein Gadol.  The Cities of Refuge were established to put an end to blood feuds.  Having recognized that there are different circumstances under which one might take a life, the Torah goes into great detail to describe each of them and the penalty attached thereto (35:16-34).  While the Torah allows for the death penalty, it is very scrupulous in how it should be applied.  At the same time, the Torah recognizes that human life is a gift from God and one may not buy his or her way out the punishment for killing.  Unlike the concept of monetary compensation that was attached to the “Eye for an eye” commands, the Israelites are precluded from accepting “ransom” from convicted murders.  Additionally, the Israelites could not accept “ransom” from one who had been confined to a City of Refuge.  Why so much law?  Why so many rules?  The spilling of blood “pollutes the land.”  The Land of Israel is God’s special place and He would not tolerate such pollution.

Conclusion (36:1-13) We are at the end of Masay.  We are at the end of Bamidbar.  We are at the end of a journey that started with the Exodus and finds the Israelites poised to conquer the Promised Land.  So what is the momentous conclusion to these events?  There is no Hollywood ending.  Instead we are faced with what appears to be a Biblical afterthought; a piece of unfinished business from a previous sedrah.  We read about a continuation of the story of the five daughters of Tzlaphchad.  Remember; they were the women who went to Moshe and complained that the laws of inheritance were unfair because they disinherited men who had no sons.  So Moshe consulted with God and re-shaped the laws of inheritance to take into consideration a variety of contingencies, including the one they had brought to his attention.  The five daughters went away happy because now they would have a portion in the Promised Land.  At the end of this sedrah, the leaders of the tribe of Manasseh approach Moshe to point out a problem with these modifications in the inheritance laws.  (Manasseh is the tribe of Tzlaphchad.)  If the daughters marry men outside of the tribe, the tribes of their husbands will inherit the land and the tribal portion of Manasseh will lose its territorial integrity.  It is interesting to note that this concern is being expressed by one of the tribes that is settling east of the Jordan; one of the tribes Moshe had previously accused of turning its back on its fellow Israelites and the Promised Land.  This is another one of those bothersome points for which I cannot find any commentary.  Moshe sees their point and adds yet another addendum to the inheritance laws.  Women who inherit from their fathers must marry somebody from with their own tribe.  This will ensure territorial integrity.  But such women are to “be wives to whomever is good in their eyes.” (36:6)  In other words, they get to choose whom they are going to marry and they may not have a mate thrust upon them.  The question still hangs in the air.  How can we end such momentous events with such a minor issue?  For a possible explanation, see Themes below.  Matot ends with a final statement that what we have read are all of the laws given by God through Moshe to the Israelites since they encamped at the plains of Moab.  These would be all of the laws starting with the sedrah of Balak.

Themes
Commandments
408.         The commandment to assign cities to Levites in which to live (35:2).
409.         The commandment that murderers not be executed before they stand trial and are convicted (35:12).
410.         The obligation to confine inadvertent manslayers to a city of refuge until the death of the Kohein Gadol (35:25).
411.         The requirement that it takes the testimony of two witnesses to convict and execute an alleged murder (35:30).
412.         The prohibition against accepting money from a murderer to save him or her from a death sentence (35:31).
413.         The prohibition against accepting money from an inadvertent manslayer to free him or her from banishment to a city of refuge (35:32).
Biblical Literacy by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin

The List of Resting Places
The sedrah provides a detailed list of places where the Israelites stopped during their wanderings in the desert.  Some critics claim that since these places cannot be found, the list is proof that the Torah is something less than what traditionalists claim it to be.  Oddly enough, the Rambam claimed that God wanted all of the places written down along with the miracles that occurred at those places so that future generations would not doubt the authenticity of the events described.  Who has the better of the argument, Rambam or some modern critics?  This sounds like another question to consider as we continue our annual wanderings through the Torah.

Wars of Extermination
The war against the Midianites and the commands about conquering the land of Canaan sound harsh in our modern ears.  One of the reasons they do is because the TaNaCh is filled with laws about social justice, mercy and the like.  In the case of Canaan, we know that the Israelites did not totally dispose of the inhabitants because they had to keep on fighting with them long after the time of Joshua.  And we know that some of our ancestors went astray, following the idolatrous path of the natives just as had been predicted.  I am not making a case for genocide.  But it is worth noting that there are great challenges in leading a Jewish life while living among the temptations of the non-Jewish world.  It was true three thousand years ago and it is true today. Just as then so it is today.  God knows we are not going to always hit the mark, but He waits for us to at least keep trying. Once again, the message of the Torah is timeless.

The Land of Israel
The Torah contains different geographic descriptions of the Land of Israel.  But at one level, the geography is unimportant.  The message of the Torah is that the land of Israel is more than a piece of dirt.  The land of Israel is only the Promised Land if it is a land of Torah.  Without the Torah we may inhabitant the land but we will be like those with “stings in our eyes,” “thorns in our sides,” “harassed in the land in which we live” and punished by God in a manner He had reserved for our enemies.

Non-imperial Israel
Alexander’s Empire stretched from Macedonia to India and included parts of Africa.  The Roman Empire stretched from the British Isles east to Mesopotamia from North Africa to the Banks of the Rhine River.  The British Empire girdled the globe to the extent that it was said “the sun never sets on the British Empire.”  In each case, the size of the empire was determined by the might of armies and navies; by the will of politicians and the economic drive of merchants and manufacturers.

Now consider the fate of the Israelites.  As “God’s chosen people,” some might think that their domain would include the entire planet or at least some large, bountiful portion, thereof.  You would think that the Israelites would do at least as well as those relying on the military.  Instead, the omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent Lord of the Universe gave His people a small, very well defined slice of the earth.  What is the meaning of this apparently disproportionate distribution of land?  First, God is the God for all people which means everybody is entitled to a portion of land in this world.  Second, the Israelites were chosen to receive and practice the law of God.  They needed enough space to do this, but they did not need some immense imperial domain.  Third, the land holdings that were the basis for these empires have all disappeared.  Yet the basis of the Jewish greatness, the teachings of the Lord are timeless and with us today as they were with our forefathers on the plains of Moab.

The Daughters of Tzlaphchad
One of the messages of Bamidbar has to do with change.  The Israelites literally changed from a nation of ex-slaves to a nation of free people ready to play their role in the next act of history.  The Israelites took the lofty words of Sinai and began to make them a part of daily life.  The various rebellions against Moshe were about change - the wrong kind of change.  For example Korach did not come to Moshe to discuss the matter of leadership.  Instead, he set himself up to replace Moshe and, in effect, to supplant the will of God.  The Daughters of Tzlaphchad showed the right way to seek change.  (Once again, leave it to the women to show the way.)  They did not like the law.  But they did not condemn it or ignore it.  Instead they approached Moshe and made their case.  Moshe then found a way to modify the law to meet their needs without violating the original intent of the law.  The request for further refinement by the leaders of Manasseh is a fitting way to end the journey of change.  They did not like the law.  But like the daughters, they did not condemn it or ignore it.  They came to Moshe, made their case and he refined the law even further.  Change is a necessary part of Judaism.  It is our ability to change in an effective manner that has kept us around for four thousand years.  Effective changes, as we can see from the Daughters of Tzlaphchad, includes being aware of the evolving world in which we live, knowing what the existing rules and traditions are and having leaders who are wise enough to know how to harmonize the two.  Maybe this is why Jews study this on an annual basis.  Maybe this is why we have made the journey through the Torah each year just as our ancestors journeyed through the Wilderness.

Roots:  Linguistics Leads to Learning
The book we have finished reading is called Bamidbar in Hebrew.  Hebrew is a language of roots, prefixes and suffixes.  In this case “Ba” is a prefix meaning “in the.”  In this case, the Hebrew word “midbar’ is translated as “wilderness” or “desert.”  Citing Maimonides, Susan Afterman reminds us that in Hebrew “midbar” is spelled mem, dalet, beth, resh.  The Hebrew word for speech, utterance, or talk is also spelled mem, dalet, beth, resh.  This linguistic anomaly offers a variety of philosophic possibilities.  It was in the Wilderness that the Israelites first heard the speech of God.  Elijah went to the Wilderness where he ultimately heard the speech of God - in the still small voice.  People go into the Wilderness or Desert to seek quiet and solitude.  In the peace and quiet of the Wilderness they are able to talk with themselves and hear their own speech.  At the same time they hope that God will talk to them and that they will be able to hear His Divine utterances.

Ending on the Mundane or the Manageable?
After all of the amazing events that we have read about from the time the Jewish people left Egypt until their arrival on the banks of the Jordan, the reading seems to end on what some would say is a mundane matter - the distribution of land.  Possibly it is a reminder that only God can create the majesty of Sinai, manna or talking Donkey.  But He has left it up to us to manage our daily affairs, the minutia of life.  How we choose to earn and share our livelihood (remember, in those days land was the source of one’s livelihood) is a matter that each of us can control.  So in the end, these books remind us that God has left us quite a bit to manage and how we manage will be the measure of the final judgment.

“Chazak!  Chazak! Venischazeik!  Be strong!  Be strong!  And may we be strengthened!”

Haftarah
Jeremiah 2:4-28; 3:4 (Ashkenazim)
Jeremiah 2:4-28; 3:4; 4:1-2 (Sephardim and Chabad)

The Man:  “Jeremiah began to prophesy in Jerusalem about seventy years after the death of Isaiah.  More is known about his life and teachings than about any other prophet, since the book of Jeremiah contains a mass of historical and biographical material.  He was gentle and sensitive.  He yearned for the comforts of a normal life; yet he felt impelled to speak the truth and be ‘a man of strife and content,’ delivering messages of doom and foretelling the fall of Jerusalem.  He was often imprisoned and in danger of his life, yet he did not flinch.  He was cruelly insulted and accused of treason by the people he loved tenderly - those whom he sought to save.  After the fall of Jerusalem in 586 before the Common Era, those who fled the wrath of the Babylonian conqueror forcibly took him into Egypt.  Tradition has it that Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, had instructed his general to treat Jeremiah with consideration and kindness.  But the prophet insisted on sharing the hardships and tortures that were inflicted on his people.  Afterwards Jeremiah was killed in Egypt, where he had continued his fiery speeches for some time.  Jeremiah also foretold the restoration of Israel, and those who survived the agonies of captivity were promised a safe journey home to Judea.  He looked forward to a reunion of departed Israel with the people of Judah, to an in ingathering of all the exiles.  The book of Jeremiah is the longest of the prophetic books, even though it has fourteen chapters less than Isaiah.  Jeremiah’s dictations to his faithful secretary Baruch were written down upon a scroll of leather which the king of Judah slashed with a knife and burned.  But the prophet was not easily discouraged.  He ordered his scribe to take another scroll and write therein all the words of the book which he had burned.”  (From A Treasury of Judaism by Philip Birnbaum)  I am sorry if you feel as if I have taken the coward’s way out by giving you this long quote from Birnbaum.  I have written several summaries about Jeremiah and was afraid that I would start repeating myself.  On the other hand, Jeremiah is entitled to proper treatment and you are entitled to a full measure each week.

The Message:  This haftarah is example of why Jeremiah was so unpopular with his contemporaries and held in such high regard by succeeding generations.  The same magnificent language which makes us pause and consider our own shortcomings angered the original audience.  After all, his words are a stinging rebuke of the people’s behavior and promise of national destruction.  A seemingly confused God asks how the Israelites can turn their back on Him after all the divine beneficence they have experienced.  Once again, these words should be read aloud.  For in majestic flowing tones, Jeremiah calls the people to account for their betrayal of God.  His contemporaries are like a nation of “Esaus” trading their birthright, God and His Torah, for a bowl of soup i.e., idolatry and iniquity.  Jeremiah has special words of disdain for the leaders of the land; the “kings…princes… (idolatrous) priests…and (false) prophets” who have allowed the Israelites to behave like “a wild donkey well acquainted with the wilderness who inhales the wind” giving in to her lusts.  After castigating the people for calling a piece of wood, “my father” and venerating a piece of stone as the one “who gave birth to us” Jeremiah asks to whom they will cry out for help in times of peril.  Once again, hear the majesty of the language.  “So where are your gods that made you for yourself?  Let them arise, if they can save you in the time of your distress; far as the number of your cities was the number of your gods, O Judah.” (2:27-28)  But even this haftarah cannot end on such a note of negativity.  So the Ashkenazim (3:4) and the Sephardim and Chabad Chassidim (4:1-2) add additional words of consolation.  The prophet reminds the people that all they have to do is return to the ways of the Lord and not go astray again to ensure their own redemption and to lead the other nations to the blessings of God.

Theme-Link:  This haftarah is the second of the Three Haftarot of Rebuke.  The first of the rebukes ends with chapter 2, verse 3 and this haftarah starts with chapter 2, verse 4.  Thus the second haftarah literally as well as thematically picks up where the first haftarah left off.  The people have not only forsaken God.  They have forsaken His teachings, the Torah, as well.  As the walls of Jerusalem were being breached by the Babylonians, Jeremiah was telling the people that the national calamity was their fault.  In a post-Auschwitz world, we must look for other causes of the calamities that have befallen our people in modern times.  This might prove a fitting topic for a discussion when people gather to observe Tisha B’Av.

Copyright; July, 2014; Mitchell A. Levin

Monday, July 14, 2014

Torah Readings for Tuesday, July 15, 2014 Shiva Asar Be-Tammuz (Seventeenth of Tammuz) and Torah Readings for Saturday, July 19, 2014 Matot


Torah Readings for Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Shiva Asar Be-Tammuz (Seventeenth of Tammuz)
This minor fast day commemorates the breaching of the walls of Jerusalem in 586 B.C.E. by the Babylonians and again in 70 C.E. by the Romans.  It marks the start of a three week period of national tragedy that culminates with the destruction of the First and Second Temples on Tisha B'Av.  Since this is a minor fast, it is observed only during the daylight hours.  This little known and little observed fast day carries a message for us when there are those whose self-proclaimed religious purity and zeal would pit Jew against Jew.  In the summer of 70 an earlier generation of Zealots was willing to kill their fellow Jews in Jerusalem as they bid to maintain control even as the Romans stood ready to storm the ancient capital.  According to some sages, the Second Temple fell because of the lack of love and community spirit among the Jewish people.  Even if we do not observe the Fast of the Seventeenth of Tammuz, we would do well to heed the lessons of this memorial to a national tragedy that happened two thousand years ago.

Secular Seventeenth of Tammuz
In 1776, July 4, Independence Day, fell on the 17th of Tammuz, 5536.  For American Jews, this certainly is a day of celebration.  The challenge is how to combine the combine the sorrow of 70 with the joy of 1776.  Is this a modern version of combining the bitterness of Maror with the sweetness of Charoset?

Seventeenth of Tammuz - 2014
This year there is a new enemy who seeks to breach the walls of the State of Israel.  This time, we pray they will fail and the children of Israel will be able to sit under their fig tree and none shall make them afraid.

Torah
32:11-14; 34:1-10 Shemot (Exodus)

As part of the observance, the Torah is read at both the Morning and the Afternoon Service.  The Torah portion is the same for both services.  It is a short reading with only three aliyot i.e., only three people are called to the Torah.  In the Afternoon Service, the Torah reading is followed by a Haftarah chosen especially for this day.  The first part of the reading (chapter 32) portrays God’s anger at the Israelites for the Golden Calf.  The second and third parts of the reading (chapter 34) describe Moshe’s return to the mountaintop to receive the Ten Commandments for the second time.  As Rabbi Kolatch points out, this is a fitting reading for a minor fast day since it contains the reminder that “sin leads to tragedy and expressions of remorse lead to forgiveness.”

Haftarah
55:6-56-8 Isaiah

This is the same haftarah read with Vayeilech, the ninth sedrah in Devarim.  In the haftarah, Isaiah calls upon the people to “Maintain justice and do what is right.”  The term for “right” in Hebrew is Tzedakah.  On fast days, it is even more important than on other days to provide contributions for the poor (Tzedakah).  Two reasons are given for reading the haftarah in the afternoon instead of the morning.  One is that by reading it in the afternoon, people will have had all morning to perform acts of Tzedakah.  A second reason is that on three of the more minor fast days, people are allowed to go to work.  Reading the haftarah in the morning would extend the service to the point where it could become burdensome.  Since Mincha is relatively short, it would be less burdensome on the community to read the haftarah at the Afternoon Service.

Torah Readings for Saturday, July 19, 2014

Matot
(30:2-32:42) Bamidbar (Numbers)

Matot is the ninth sedrah in Bamidbar (Numbers).  The sedrah takes its name from the first significant word in the first sentence of the portion, “And Moshe spoke to the heads (Matot) of the tribes of the children of Israel saying.”  The text actually uses the word “hamatot.”  In Hebrew the letter “hay” placed in front of a noun may be translated as “the” so the text is saying “the tribes.”  The sedrah divides into three parts - Vows and Oaths, The War with the Midianites and The Land of Rueben, Gad and Manasseh.

Vows and Oaths (30:2-30:17).  The first section of the sedrah deals specifically with two kinds of obligations, the vow or “neder” and the oath or “shevuah.”  (See Themes for a discussion of the difference between the two.)  As we shall see, the text provides a springboard for commentary on the importance of the spoken word in Judaism.  In a break from his usual practice, Moshe gives the rules about vows and oaths to the heads of the tribes and not to the Children of Israel as a whole.  The leaders are expected to communicate these rules to the people at a later time.   Commentators give three reasons for this difference.  In seeking favor with their followers, leaders may be tempted to use words people want to hear.  The words of leaders may lead the people astray or to greatness.  According to Halachah, under certain circumstances a leader or special court of three may be able to annul an ill-considered vow or oath.  The spoken word has great power in Judaism.  Creation was the result of words.  For example in creating man the word preceded the deed.  “And God said, ‘Let us make Man in Our image…So God created Man in His image.’”  And when one utters a promise invoking the divine name, one is expected to honor that obligation.  “According to whatever comes from his mouth he shall do.” (30:2)  However, all vows and oaths are not equal.  The sedrah presents a rather detailed formulary by which fathers and husbands may annul the vows and oaths of their daughters and/or wives.  This portion of Matot certainly is not consistent with our modern views of equality regardless of sex.  But we have seen the Torah is not necessarily consistent when it comes to matters of equality between the sexes.  For example, commandments like honoring parents or observing Shabbat apply to everybody regardless of sex.  Yet when it comes to inheritance laws or offering sacrifices the Torah presents what we would call a sexist bias.  Regardless of one’s view on this question, we must ask ourselves why the section on Vows and Oaths appears at this point in Bamidbar.  Perhaps further reading of the sedrah will provide a clue.

War with the Midianites (31:1-54).  Matot now picks up where the previous narrative left off.  It returns to the story of the Midianites versus the Israelites started in Balak and continued in Pinchas.  Having defeated the Midianites’ attempts to overcome the Israelites, the Lord tells Moshe, “Take vengeance for the Children of Israel against the Midianites” (31:2).  To fulfill God’s command, Moshe creates a special army made up of an “eleph” from each tribe.  Accompanied by Pinchas this special fighting force is to destroy the Midianites.  The victorious Israelites kill, among others, the five kings of Midian and Balaam of talking donkey fame.  However, when the troops return, Moshe is furious because they have let the women live.  Moshe orders them to kill all the male children and all of the women except for the virgins.  While this command may sound discordant in our ears, from Moshe’s point of view it was quite sensible since it was these women who had attempted to seduce the Israelites and turn them to idolatry.  The chapter continues with the ritual purification of the soldiers who had come in contact with the dead, the purification of the booty and the division of the spoils.  Unlike those who run our corporate world today, the Torah provides a very detailed accounting of all items taken and the distributions made to the soldiers, the general population and the Kohanim.  The commanders and the officers are surprised to find that they have suffered no casualties and are moved to give an additional offering to the Lord in thanksgiving for a bloodless (from their point of view) victory.  This fight with the Midianites is unique in that it was not about territory or any temporal issue.  Rather it was a holy war designed to bring the Lord’s vengeance on transgressors.  Also, the Torah’s account may lack for some purely historical accuracy.  There are later mentions of the Midianites and fights against them.  There may have been more than one group with that name in the ancient world.  The Israelites may have only destroyed one group.  From Moshe’s point of view, there are two unique elements to this fight.  First, he does not lead it.  While no specific military commander is named, Pinchas is the one who is commanded to go with the troops.  Secondly, and more importantly, God has told Moshe that once the war is won, “you shall be gathered to your kin.” (31:2).  Could this knowledge that he was about to die have accounted for some of Moshe’s rough attitude in talking to the troops and dealing with the Midianites?  You be the judge.

The Land of Rueben, Gad and Manasseh (32:1-42).  The leaders of these two and one half tribes come to Moshe and tell him that that they want to settle on the eastern bank of the Jordan.  Before they can finish their sales pitch, Moshe begins to rebuke them for not being willing to join their brethren in the fight for the Promised Land.  He compares them to the Generation of the Spies, the generation that would not fight for the land.  In fact he is concerned that just as the spies turned the Israelites away from entering the Promised Land, so will the timidity of the two and a half undermine the courage of this generation of Israelites.  They assure Moshe that he has misunderstood them.  As soon as they have built “sheepfolds for our flocks and homes for our children,” they will be the shock-troops for the invasion Canaan.  What is more, they will not return to their homes until the conquest is complete.  Moshe accepts their promise.  (Now do you see why the sedrah started with a section on the importance of fulfilling vows and oaths?)  Since Moshe will be dead by the time they will have kept or broken their promise he tells Elazar and Joshua about the bargain.  He also tells them that if the two and a half tribes fail to keep their word, they will have to settle in Canaan and give up their holdings in Trans-Jordan.  Traditionally, Rueben, Gad and Manasseh have been criticized for their decision.  By saying that they wanted to settle outside of the Promised Land because it would be good for their cattle and that they wanted to build shelter for their sheep and for their children (instead of the other way around) they are seen as shallow and materialistic.  And that may be a fair assessment.  On the other hand, they may just have been a little ahead of their times.  As you know, the Torah gives more than one description of the boundaries of the Promised Land.  Sometimes, the eastern boundary is the Jordan River.  But at other times it is the Euphrates River.  According to at least one source, this Euphrates River boundary was for the time of the Moshiach.  So who knows, maybe the leaders of these two and a half tribes were just a little ahead of their time, trying to hasten the coming of the Moshiach.  This is not the usual interpretation, but then this is not your usual Torah study either.  The sedrah ends with the two and half tribes securing their hold on the land that will ultimately be their portion in the future Kingdom of Israel.

Themes
Commandments
406.      The specification and procedure for fulfilling ones vow (30:3).
407.         The specification and procedure for nullifying a vow when necessary (30:8).
Biblical Literacy by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin

Vows and Oaths
The first section of Matot deals with two distinct types of commitment.  The first is a vow or in Hebrew a “neder.”  The second is an oath or in Hebrew a “shevuah.”  As the notes in the Stone Chumash point out, the term “neder” really means something more than just a vow.  It is more than a simple promise to do something.  Rather, a “neder” gives a person the right to do something that heretofore could be done only by God:  to create a new halachich status.  For example, one can make a vow to deny himself something, for a limited period of time, which the Torah permits.  The invoking of the “neder” changes the nature of the thing itself.  On the other hand, “by means of an oath or ‘shevuah’ one may either prohibit oneself or require oneself to perform an act.”  To use Stone’s example, “if I have made an apple forbidden to myself (this is an example of ‘neder’) the apple has the status of a forbidden food to me and therefore I may not enjoy the apple.”  The status of the apple has changed.  But if I have taken an oath (“shevuah”) to eat an apple, I have accepted an obligation but from the point of view of halachah, the status of the apple has not changed.  This may seem a little esoteric, but it is a concept with which we should have some nodding acquaintance as we go forward.  (And that is all I have, a nodding acquaintance.)   As Rabbi Telushkin points out, vows are so important that “many observant Jews, when announcing something that they plan to do, append the Hebrew words “bli neder (without a vow), to protect themselves in case they cannot fulfill their word.

Kashrut
This sedrah provides the basis for the method of purifying various items acquired from non-Jews. (31:21-24).  More specifically it provides the method of purification for utensils and kitchen items so that may be used in accord with Jewish Dietary Laws.  In telling the soldiers how to purify some of their booty the Torah states the following.  “Any article that can withstand fire-these shall you pass through fire and they shall be pure, except that they must be purified with water of lustration; and anything that cannot withstand fire you must pass through water ” (31:23).  This last statement about purifying by water has led to a practice called toiveling coming from the Hebrew word “toivel” meaning to immerse.  For more information at the easy reading level, I suggest you look at Spice and Spirit.

The Complexities of Moshe
Moshe continues to show himself to be both a great leader and a very complex person.  When God told Moshe to wipe out the Midianites, Moshe did not tarry.  He moved quickly to obey God even though God told him in the same sentence (31:2) that once this was done, Moses was going to die.  A lesser man might have stalled around; but not Moshe.  Just as Abraham got up early in the morning to take Isaac up to Mount Moriah, so did Moshe move with alacrity.  This is a reminder that as the sages say, a righteous man is quick to do the work of the Lord.

A Few Last Words about Words
The readings from the Tanya that are read at this time deal with the concept of creation coming from the word of God.  Perhaps this is coincidence.  Or perhaps it is a way of reinforcing or expanding on this important concept found in Matot.

“According to the Hebrew Bible, God made the world with words.  God just spoke and the world became reality.  The Aramaic for ‘I create as I speak’ is avara k’davara, or in, magicians language, abracadabra.”  The Book of Words by Rabbi Lawrence Kushner

Matot and the Modern World
The sedrah reminds of the importance of words, especially of the impact of words spoken by leaders.  In the 21st century the misuse of words has had a corrosive impact on our political and social discourse both in the United States and in Israel.  Too often our leaders, regardless of party or belief, use language that is intended to inflame and not inform.  There are two things we can do about this.  We can avoid this kind of language in our own discourse and we can let our leaders know that we do not want to hear this kind of language.  It also reminds us of the importance of vows - promises.  It would behoove our leaders to only promise that which they can reasonably deliver.  And it would behoove us not to force them to make promises that they cannot keep.

East Bank Settlement
The request to settle on the east bank is a strange interlude.  In the beginning, it is the leaders of Gad and Ruben who make the request.  When Moses acquiesces he includes a portion of Manasseh even though they had not made the request.  This episode may be an example of having a biblical tale to explain a current reality; a form of interpretation that James Kugel mentions in his writings.  It could have been that a portion of the Israelites came to live on the east bank of the Jordan River.  When people asked why this was, this story was “created” to show that their settlement really was done with divine approval.  Another point to consider is the involvement of the tribe of Ruben.  Ruben had been the oldest son, but, according to Bereshit, he had been supplanted in the days of Jacob.  Could the desire of his descendants to live away from the main body of the House of Israel be a way of Ruben’s progeny expressing their displeasure at being denied their rightful place in the grand scheme of things?  Mannaseh presented a special problem.  Depending on when the counting is done, Manasseh is really half of the Joseph Tribe with Ephriam being the other half.  Could settling this half tribe on the east bank be Moses’s way of dealing with a thorny question of land allotment?  The fact is that whatever propelled the creation of this Jewish community across from the “Promised Land” there was something wrong with what when on there.  After all, when God allots the six cities of refuge, he puts three on the west bank of the Jordan and three on the east bank of the Jordan.  When you consider how much larger the land mass and population base were on the west bank, this seems allotment seems disproportionate.  Unless, that is, the land east of the Jordan river was like the land west of the Pecos River in American folklore, a lawless place inhabited by desperados.  I have not been able to find an answer to all of this, but that is not a reason to avoid the question or to stop looking for one.

Lessons in Leadership
“48 And the officers that were over the thousands of the host, the captains of thousands, and the captains of hundreds, came near unto Moses; 49 and they said unto Moses:  `Thy servants have taken the sum of the men of war that are under our charge, and there lacketh not one man of us.  50 And we have brought the LORD's offering, what every man hath gotten, of jewels of gold, armlets, and bracelets, signet-rings, ear-rings, and girdles, to make atonement for our souls before the LORD.'” (31:48-50)  The leaders of the military expedition were thankful that there were no casualties and they wanted to express their gratitude for this miracle.  So they gave up their portion of the booty but the common foot soldiers got to keep theirs.  Compare this with the world in which we work where the “captains of industry” do anything to protect their bonuses and perks even when it comes at the diminishment of the well-being of the workers - today’s version of the common foot soldiers.  These officers who were only separated by one generation from the whip of the Egyptian taskmasters showed a great sensitivity and true leadership than the products of some our fanciest universities and their schools of business.

Haftarah
1:1-2:23 Jeremiah

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, 2014; Mitchell A. Levin

Monday, July 7, 2014

Torah Readings for Saturday, July 12, 2014 Pinchas


Torah Readings for Saturday, July 12, 2014

Pinchas
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 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.

Themes
Commandments
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

Forbidden Marriage - 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.

The Shofar - 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.

Torah Readings - 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 - 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 observant 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.

Sedrah Symmetry - 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.

Adding or Subtracting - When 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 Heads - The 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.

Questions - What 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 Images - The 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.”

Leadership Limits - When Moses asks God about a successor, He responds by telling Moses to “place some of your majesty” or “invest some of your authority” on Joshua.  The key word is “some.”  In other words, Joshua is not Moses.  Commentators take this to mean that Moses can transfer his temporal power to Joshua, but only God can transfer the Spiritual Powers which are unique to Moses.  Others compare Moses to the Sun and Joshua to the Moon - a leader whose power is a reflection of the great prophet and lawgiver.  The fact is that no matter what Joshua did, he would always fall short of Moses by comparison.  As students of American history, following a strong, popular leader can be a challenge as can be seen when John Adams succeeded George Washington or when Harry Truman succeeded Franklin Roosevelt.

Haftarah
18:46-19:21 I Kings

The Man:  The Book of Kings (I Kings and II Kings) is the fourth book in the section of Neviim called the Early Prophets.  The book takes its name from the fact that it recounts the period of the monarchy starting with the last days of King David continuing through period of the two kingdoms and climaxing with the fall of Judah and Jerusalem.  This covers a period from about 965 B.C.E. through 586 B.C.E.  This week’s reading features the famous prophet Elijah.  Elijah lived in the Northern Kingdom, Israel, during the reign of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel and their son King Ahaziah (approx. ninth century B.C.E.).  Elijah was in constant conflict with the monarchs over the issues of idol worship and morality.  We have already read about Elijah when I Kings: 1-39 was the haftarah for the sedrah of Ki Tissa.  The angry Elijah found in the Book of Kings has been transformed into a more benign figure thanks to a variety of sources including other prophets, rabbinic commentaries and folk legends.  Thanks to the words of Malachi (3:24) Elijah is viewed as the herald of the coming of the Messiah.  This has earned him a cup of wine at every Seder held over the centuries as well as a reference in the Grace After Meals and the blessings after the chanting of the Haftarah.  Elijah rose to heaven in a fiery chariot, which means he never died.  This apparent immortality has given rise to numerous legends about Elijah rescuing Jews in times of peril and distress.  At a traditional Brit (ritual circumcision), the baby is placed on the Chair of Elijah.  This custom comes from an event described in this haftarah.

The Message:  In the prophetic portion read with Ki Tissa, we read about Elijah’s confrontation with the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel.  This haftarah is a continuation of that story line.  Having killed the prophets who were the favorites of Queen Jezebel, Elijah is forced to flee for his life and heads for the Kingdom of Judah.  A day after leaving the dessert town of Beersheba, Elijah has one of those classic encounters with the Divine Presence.  First while lying under a bush, then while hiding in a cave and finally while standing on a mountaintop, Elijah knows God as much as person can.  God is not in the rock-splitting wind, or the earthquake or the fire.  God is in “kol d’mamah dakkah”, translated variously as “a still small voice” or “a soft murmuring sound” (19:12).  Obviously, the author is trying to describe an experience that is beyond the limits of language.  The Hebrew word “Kol” means voice.  “D’mamah” is feminine noun that can mean silence, stillness, calm or whisper.  “Dakkah” is an adjective that can mean fine, thin, lean or low.  Could it be that when heard the voice of God, Elijah heard the “sounds of silence?”  Whatever he actually heard, the message for us is that if we do not hear the voice of God, then we must listen closely.  Especially in a modern society given to ear-splitting sounds and hollering talk-show hosts, the low whisper of the voice of God is easy to miss.  Elijah tells God that he is hiding because he is the last remaining Jew (19:14).  According to Midrash, Elijah must attend every circumcision (See Elijah’s Chair mentioned above) to remind him that he was in error and that the Israelites never completely abandoned God and never will.  In the text God reassures Elijah by telling him to go back home and perform a series of tasks.  The last of these is anointing his successor, Elisha who will continue Elijah’s work after he is gone.

Theme-link:  The sedrah and the haftarah feature men of zeal, men who have a “passion” for the Lord.  God speaks approvingly of Pinchas’ “passion for Me” as the determining factor that caused Him to spare the Israelites at Baal-Peor.  Similarly Elijah invokes his zeal for the Lord, his passion so to speak, for slaughter of the prophets of Ba’al at Mt. Carmel.  This zeal, which is spoken of so approvingly in both texts, has caused some commentators quite a lot of difficulty.  Accordingly, some have sought to soften or re-direct these two episodes.  The episode at Baal-Peor is described in Psalm 106.  Already, at this comparatively early date according to some commentators, the intercession of Pinchas is described more as a prayer-like act than an act of violence.

Copyright; July, 2014; Mitchell A. Levin