Back to the Parashah – Pinchas (part 1)

I remember saying about two months ago or so on my other site that I was going to do one of these every week, and then stopped after two, but I feel fine about doing this here, so I might as well get to it!

This week’s portion is Pinchas (Num. 25:10-26), named for the character of the first story. The portion is kind of a mixed bag, with four separate narratives: the first is the story of Pinchas, a man with a fairly fanatical reaction to intermarriage and paganism; a reckoning of the peoples of Israel, by ancestor; Zelophehad’s daughters, a very famous story of a man who had no sons and whose daughters took their case for the right to inherit right to Moses and God, and sort of won the right for all other daughters after that point; finally, the finality of not entering the Promised Land hits Moses and it is time for him to anoint a successor.

There really isn’t much to say about Pinchas, at least not at the outset. At the end of the previous parahshah, Pinchas the grandson of Aaron killed an Israelite man and his Midianite companion in their tent which stemmed a plague from God as punishment for Israel’s idolatry. After this act, God commands Moses to grant Pinchas and his descendants the priesthood.

Curiously, as Etz Hayimnotes, while the Torah suggests this was a noble act, the commentators have been divided on whether or not this was a just act. Samson Raphael Hirsch, the great Orthodox rabbi of the 19th century, very strongly believed this to be just: “Anyone who wages war on the enemies of what is good and true is a champion of the Covenant of Peace on earth even while engaged in war.” The Bablyonian Talmud, however, claimed that if Pinchas consulted the rabbinical assembly, the assembly would have told him not at all: “The law may permit it but we do not follow that law!”.

The division here which includes rabbinic opinions as early as the first few centuries CE suggests that many of the extreme commandments about stoning and putting to death many people for many reasons, from Exodus and Leviticus primarily, were not followed in that way for much of recorded Judaism’s history. It may seem like a fairly wide conclusion, but Pinchas’s extremism was in defense of God’s holy Name; this has long been considered the most important cause in Judaism, and most works of activism and justice have been interpreted to serve that end. Concerns that (without really basis other than my own opinion) seem lesser, such as disobedient children, don’t fall under that, so this again shows how the popular misconception of Judaism probably doesn’t match reality.

Another interesting viewpoint is the K’tav Sofer’s view that Pinchas was actually given the priesthood to stem his violent and extreme impulses, rather than reward them; a kohen cannot conduct himself in such a violent and zealous manner.

After that story concludes, God orders Moses to take a census – Rashi likens it to a shepherd numbering the flock after wolves attack, while Rabbi Hirsch suggests this was a healing act to regain communal self-worth after the plague by reflecting on ancestry.

I would tend to take Hirsch’s view – we have seen shades of this play out in the reaction to the Shoah, where communities have more wholeheartedly embraced the tradition than may have been the case before; and that, also, this act of return is a way in which people of confused identity have often re-centered themselves and managed to salvage a self-image.

Another curious mention is the mention of the sons of Korah – some commentators believed that they come up in every generation as quarrelsome and divisive, while others disagree and say that they learned their lesson and repented, and this shows that almost anyone can repent and make a clean start. I see another possible element here – another affirmation of the Jewish notion of sin, that each man’s sin is his own and that the sins of the father do not carry down to the son.

The third story here is the very famous story of the daughters of Zelophehad: Machlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah. As the story goes, Zelophehad had no sons, and so the daughters went to Moses, Eleazer, the twelve chieftains and all the assembly and plead their case: “Let not our father’s name be lost to his clan just because he had no son! Give us a holding among our father’s kinsmen!”

Imagine the courage that must have taken – not just one-on-one with Moses, but in front of the chieftains and the assembly as well, quite possibly all men, and stand firmly for what is right and just.

Now, as Etz Hayim points out, the implication here for why this has come to be is that Zelophehad’s wife is dead or infertile – while the text doesn’t say, I’d assume that were she alive, his brother would marry her and thus he would take possession of the property in that way, so that this did not happen suggests the wife was in fact dead.

So, Moses takes the case to God, who not only grants their request but decrees to Moses that this case shall be normative in all such occurrences for here on out. Sadly, it seems, daughters did not start the process of receiving equal inheritances until the 16th century with the decree of Moses Isserles; only in 1943 when the chief rabbinate of Palestine ruled on the subject did it become possible for daughters to inherit equally with sons under traditional law.

There’s more to come, so I will have to cut this short right now!

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