Following are some of the ideas, insights and interpretations that emerge from our weekly Chumash learning group at the Young Israel of Oceanside, Long Island. We cite sources when possible. Some of our interpretations may derive from ideas we may have seen elsewhere, possibly without attribution. Or we may simply have forgotten the source. For this we apologize. We invite your comments, observations and participation.
Parsha contains six positive commandments
For “zealously avenging Me”, God gives Pinchas, grandson of Aharon, peace and permanent priesthood
God orders an attack on the nation of Midian for its hostility towards, and idolatrous seduction of, the Israelites
A new census is taken; total population remains virtually unchanged from 40 years earlier, though some of the tribes experience dramatic changes
Procedure for dividing the land of Israel by tribe
Census of the Levites
Daughters of Tzelafchad ask for and receive their deceased father’s inheritance on the condition that they only marry within their tribe (to avoid tribal warfare over land)
Laws of inheritance
Moshe views the Land from Mt. Ayvarem before his death
God appoints Yehoshua to be Moshe’s successor
Moshe installs Yehoshua as leader for military and civil matters by laying his hands on Yehoshua’ s head
Religious leadership is retained by Elazar the Priest
Listing of daily (tamid) and festival (musaf) communal offerings (korbanot)
No korbanot were brought during the forty years of wandering (according to Ibn Ezra)
“The Transformation of the Jewish People from Spiritual Deprivation to Virtuousness”
The Lubavitcher Rebbe explains that the reading of this Parsha around the Three Weeks period of mourning is meant to remind us that we have the power within ourselves to convert the tragedies of the past into times of feasting and rejoicing if only we muster our internal fortitude to rise to the challenge. Pinchas did not stand aside and say let someone else or someone greater deal with the public act of indecency and immorality. He did not hesitate; he acted. The Sages teach us that Pinchas had the soul of the prophet Elijah, the prophet who announced the ultimate Redemption. The Rebbe concludes that even though God may infuse us with that spirit (just as He imbued Pinchas with the courage to act) it is our job to “galvanize that spirit into action”.
In the city of Shittim (last stop before crossing the Jordan River into the Promised Land) the Israelites engage in (forbidden) sexual relations with the neighboring nations and embrace the worship of the local pagan deity, Baal. According to the Talmud, this behavior resulted from the Gentile prophet Bilaam’s insidious plan to have the local harlots insist that the prospective Israelite “client” worship an idol prior to consummating the deal.
God is incensed and some 24,000 people die in a plague. A prominent Jewish prince (Zimri) is publicly intimate with a prominent Midianite princess(Kazby).
Guila Kotler notes the literary irony of a man whose name means “song” having intercourse with a woman whose name means “deceit” and “idolatry”! Furthermore, observes Guila, the couple’s behavior takes place in an open tent for all the world to see. This “open tent” defiant act of immorality (possibly related to some form of idolatrous orgiastic ritual) is a reversal of the “how good are your tents, Yaakov” observation made by Bilaam earlier.
Pinchas immediately recognizes that such rebellious, sinful behavior was a cynical disregard of law, order and common decency. This act represented an open breach of God’s Covenant with the Israelites. It posed a dangerous challenge to the national leadership that could have…
• Catalyzed a national rebellion
• Undone and reversed the progress that had been made to form an ethical and holy nation
• Resulted in many more deaths
Pinchas does not consult with Moshe or with the Sages about what to do. Instead, based on a law he remembers having learned from Moshe --“One who has sexual relations with a heathen, zealous people have the right to strike him” --he acts spontaneously and impulsively and kills the coupling couple with a spear through their genitals.
As a reward for his memorable and dramatic response to this public display of rebellion, lewdness and idolatry, God promises him His covenant of Peace and promises that he and his descendants would always retain the Priesthood.
What is the “Covenant of Peace”?
The Torah identifies Pinchas as “the son of Elazar who was the son of Aharon” to make the point that he was a passionate and peace-loving man like his grandfather. He was not a blood thirsty, aggressive individual. Quite the contrary, he was a man of peace, a quiet man. Even this act of zealotry was not to kill, but to protect more innocent people from dying. When Pinchas saw that the people were perishing because of the public atrocity and desecration that Zimri perpetrated, he went against his own quiet nature to defend God and to save lives. He was a zealot …for peace! He acted selflessly with no concern for how powerful and well-connected these sinners were. Because he brought peace to the Jewish nation (the plague ceased) by acting quickly to avenge in God’s name, he was granted an unconditional promise on God’s part, a “covenant of peace”:
• Rashi explains that the covenant is an expression of a warm, friendly feeling of thankfulness for a kindness done.
• Ibn Ezra thinks it is a protection from any retaliation by friends and family of the powerful and prominent people who were slain.
• The covenant may also be understood in psychological terms. Rabbi Z.Y. Berlin (Netziv) thinks the covenant is a protection against a permanent internal demoralization that can result from the act of killing. It was meant to prevent Pinchas from becoming quick-tempered, angry and exacting. He was given a blessing to remain gentle and peaceful.
• Anyone who murders must be conflicted on some level at some time. As such, it may be that God promised Pinchas that he will not suffer from these internal conflicts and guilt.
• Perhaps the covenant of peace means that God guaranteed that Pinchas would no longer have to play the role of the zealot, something than ran counter to his nature.
• Or perhaps the "covenant of peace" was meant to restore Pinchas' sanity, after his having behaved so wrongly. Such an interpretation marginalizes Pinchas’ actions and deprives him of his status as role model.
In his enthusiasm on God’s behalf, Pinchas defies all the Torah’s legislated judicial procedures and murders two people without warning, without witnesses and without testimony and trial. Yet God seems to approve: “Pinchas…turned my wrath away from the children of Israel by zealously avenging Me (kano es kenasi) in their presence, and I did not destroy the children of Israel because of My demand for exclusive worship (b’kinasi)”. Even more amazing is that he was rewarded with the covenants of peace and everlasting priesthood!
The Hebrew word kinasi is translatable either as “my zealous” or “my jealous”:
• Zealous means full of zeal, ardent, exhibiting enthusiasm or strong passion. "Overzealous" is used to criticize obsessive or fanatical behavior.
• Jealous, on the other hand, describes…
The emotional resentment of not having what someone else has or…
One troubled by worries that one might have been replaced in someone’s affections or…
One suspicious of a lover or a spouse’s fidelity
It is interesting that these two words, zealous and jealous, sound so much alike and, in fact, derive from the same Latin and Greek root words. Furthermore, whenever the Hebrew root-word is used in the Torah about God it refers to His reaction to the idolatrous behavior of the Israelite nation.
In his discussion of this topic, Rabbi B. S. Jacobson cites the Jerusalem Talmud that states that Pinchas acted without the sanction of the authorities and that they would have even excommunicated him, but for the intervention of God’s declaration. A discussion in the Talmud Bavli cites one opinion that Pinchas’ act was sanctioned by Moshe and two opinions that he took the initiative without discussing the matter with Moshe.
The text itself subtly draws out attention to his intolerable behavior, notes Guila Kotler. The first time his name appears it contains a minimized letter yud. And when God promises him a “covenant of peace”, the vav in the Hebrew word for peace, shalom, is cut in the middle. Something was amiss in Pinchas and in his behavior.
Rambam concludes that zealotry can only be condoned if these conditions exist:
• The illicit intimacy is public knowledge
• The killing occurs in flagrante delicto (in the act of having illicit sexual relations)
• There has been no prior authorization or discussion with authorities
The Midrash offers opposing views regarding the role of zealotry. Pinchas is also associated with Elijah the Prophet, both of whom, on their own, administered punishment for those they deemed deserved it.
Nechama Leibowitz cites Rabbi Baruch Epstein (author of Torah Temimah) who concludes that the zealot needs to be motivated by an unselfish, genuine desire to advance and/or defend the glory of God. But who can tell what really is in the zealot’s heart and mind? Is he defending God or is he committing murder? It was because of this uncertainty that the Sages wanted to excommunicate Pinchas.
Shmuel Hakatan (Shmuel the modest) was known for his love of fellow man and lived by the verse in Proverbs, “Rejoice not when your enemy falls and don’t let your heart be glad when he stumbles”. When Rabban Gamliel, head of the Sanhedrin in Yavneh after the destruction of Jerusalem, saw the need to make an addition to the daily prayer for heavenly protection against heretics and informers, he had trouble finding a scholar capable of creating such a prayer. In the end, Shmuel HaKatan composed the prayer [Birkat Haminim].
Rav Kook elaborates on the difficulty in finding someone to write such a prayer. Because the prayer touches on such powerful motions as hostility and anger, it could only be composed by someone who has eliminated hatred and petty resentment (unsuitable emotions in a prayer) from his heart. Only a person like Shmuel HaKatan--who was completely unselfish, who was inspired by the sincerest of motives--was qualified to compose a prayer so pure and unselfish in pleading with God to stop the wicked and their evil plans.
So, too, the zealot must be a person with such an exceptional personality who has a love for God and whose behavior is not based on personal jealousy. The moment his personal prejudices enter, he ceases to be an admired zealot. That God praised and rewarded him suggests that Pinchas was the rarity whose motives were 100% pure.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks cites the Rebbe of Kotz who explains that Pinchas the zealot could not have been appointed the leader (instead of Yehoshua) because while his zealotry may have been warranted, he still lacked the patience and respect for due process that comes with the office.
Notes Rav Frand: “The ability to properly perform an act of zealotry is not something everyone can take upon themselves. The person must be at the highest spiritual level”.
In Rabbi Berel Wein’s view “It is the transformation of Pinchas from the man of violence to the man of peace that is the message of the Torah in this week’s parsha. The story of Pinchas is recorded for us in the Torah to teach us that such transformations are possible and indeed necessary for the ultimate good of the Jewish people and humanity generally. The Jewish story is that Pinchas becomes Elijah and Elijah becomes the harbinger of Jewish redemption and eternity. “
God does not reward Pinchas arbitrarily. His reward is the antidote to his earlier behavior, and the hope is that he will learn from his past.
The story of Pinchas is the story of a rare individual who is the exception to the rule. It was not meant to be a model for behavior and cannot be cited as a basis for condoning anyone who mistreats or kills “in the name of God”.
Legacy and Leadership
There are several events in this Parsha involving Moshe’s behavior.
In the opening story, Moshe is instructed by God to inform Pinchas that he has been granted God’s Covenant of Peace and that this eternal covenant of priesthood will be for him and for his descendants.
The next story is about Moshe’s detailed final census of the Israelites that includes and names each of the tribes and their offspring. This action was taken in advance of God’s instructions regarding the allotment of the Land of Israel among the people listed in the census. Following this is a census of the Levites.
The third episode deals with the daughters of Tzelafchad who, because there are no sons, ask to inherit their father’ share in the Land. Not knowing the answer, Moshe asks God who instructs Moshe to transfer their father’s inheritance to them.
After a summation of the laws of inheritance, Moshe is told by God to ascend on a mountain and look at the Promised Land because he will not be allowed to enter the land and because this is the place where he will die and be buried. Moshe’s response is to plead with God to appoint his disciple Yehoshua as his replacement so that the Israelites will not be left leaderless.
Rabbi David Fohrman’s explanation is that the common denominator in each story is that Moshe concerns himself entirely with the legacy of others. His legacy is missing in each:
God’s covenant with Pinchas is about Moshe’s brother Aharon, not Moshe himself.
When he conducts the census of the Levites Moshe makes no mention of himself or his family
Moshe assures the daughters of Tzelafchad of their legacy; but there is no legacy for him and his family.
When God instructs him to go up the mountain and view the legacy of the Nation [the land of Israel], Moshe is once again “left out”. A lesser man might have become despondent or enraged after this series of “snubs”. But not Moshe. His immediate concern only is for the needs of the nation that he led during the forty-year desert trek. He fears that upon his death his people will be like a flock of sheep without a shepherd. He pleads with God to have his disciple Yehoshua replace him as the nation’s leader. It was Yehoshua, like Moshe, who belittled himself to help others.
God instructs Moshe to place his hand on Yehoshua’s head in an act that will transfer some of his leadership and authority to his disciple. Moshe’s legacy is Yehoshua. Rabbi Fohrman reasons that carrying out one’s values and ideals is the ideal legacy. When it comes to leadership it is the only legacy.
Rabbi Marc Angel comments on the imagery of a shepherd and his flock. A shepherd is often lonely. He needs to put the needs of the flock before his own. He keeps the flock in order, making sure all are accounted for. He needs to be strong yet gentle and sensitive to the individual needs of each member of the flock. “Moshe wanted the Israelites to have a leader who would emulate the best qualities of a shepherd.”
Studies have shown that when employees are treated with incivility by their superiors, efficiency and effectiveness suffer. The same phenomenon occurs in the religious sphere. When religious or lay leaders are callous or bullying or when their behavior is at odds with the fundamental tenets of our faith, communal demoralization can set in. It is, therefore, urgent to seek out leaders who like Yehoshua embody the best qualities of the shepherd:
One who is strong yet considerate of each person;
One who puts the interest of the community before his own;
One who has not lusted for or abused power.
Concludes Rabbi Angel “Selfless, devoted and talented shepherds are not easy to find. But without them we are lost.”
The Daily Offerings [korban tamid] and the Additional [musaf] Offerings
Sabbath and the Jewish holidays are dealt with in a few places in the Torah. This week’s Parsha focuses entirely on the additional offerings that were brought on these special days rather than on the nature of the holidays themselves.
The topic is introduced with the daily requirement to bring a lamb [one in the morning and one in the evening] that is entirely burnt on the altar [olah]. This is followed by:
The weekly additional offering [musaf Shabbat]
The monthly musaf offering [rosh chodesh]
A schedule of the musaf offerings brought on each holiday listed as a precise lunar date, starting with the Passover offerings in the month of Nissan
Each set of offerings consists of…
o Olah offering of par (young bull), ayil (ram), and keves (lamb)
o Flour and wine offering
o Seir chatat [a sin offering of one young male goat]
The following table lists the number of each animal for the Olah offering.
Rabbi Menachem Leibtag demonstrates that the olah offering falls into two groupings. Rosh Chodesh, Passover and Shavuot (considered the conclusion of Passover) all relate to the Exodus. Each requires the same number of animals for the olah offering [two bulls, one ram, and seven lambs].
Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur and Shemini Atzeret all occur in the month of Tishrei and are days of judgement (Shemini Atzeret for water). They form a second group in which each holiday has the same number of animals required for the olah offering [one bull, one ram, and seven lambs]. For this group only one bull is offered; the first group needed two bulls.
Succot is unique in that it can be classified in either group. It is a thanksgiving holiday like the holidays in the first group. But because it is celebrated in the month of Tishrei and is also a time of judgement (anticipating the critical rainy season) it could be considered part of the second group. Because of this double nature, theorizes Rabbi Leibtag, its animal offerings are double: two rams instead of one and fourteen lambs instead of seven.
The total number of bulls that are offered over the course of the Succot holiday is seventy, representative of the seventy nations of the world for whom we pray. This underscores Judaism’s concern for humanity at large, a firmly established ethical imperative of our religion. We as a people have the responsibility for building and settling society and human civilization. Rabbi Angel explains that
“‘Tikun olam’ is not the provenance of secularist Jews, but is an essential ingredient in traditional Orthodox Judaism.” He urges us to re-examine the widely-held belief in the particularism of Judaism and to explore and act on “the universalistic elements of our tradition”.
This outline of musaf offerings logically belongs in Sefer Vayikrah where the laws of offerings and of holidays are discussed. But, explains Rabbi Leibtag, because these closing chapters of Sefer Bamidbar deal with the Israelites’ preparation for their entry into the Promised Land, these offerings “may symbolize the special connection between God and Bnei Yisrael that must crystallize as Bnei Yisrael prepare to conquer and inherit their Land”.