Parashat Pinchas 5780

Rabbi Danny Rich – 8th July 2020

 

In common with a number of the parashiyot in the Book of Numbers, Pinchas has two distinct parts. It is primarily narrative but its latter part (28:1-30:1) details the calendar of sacrifices.

This calendar, of course, represents the effort by the Israelites on their arrival in the Promised Land to establish a regular means of communication with God. Begun according to legend in the mishkan, the tabernacle, the travelling ‘home’ of God, this temporariness will eventually give way to more permanent places and buildings, culminating in the Temples in Jerusalem, the Second of which is only destroyed by the Romans in 70CE – a substantial time after the conquest of Canaan.

The sacrifices described here later become the inspiration for the cycle of synagogue services including the daily tamid, offered every evening and morning; the additional offering on Shabbat, Rosh Chodesh and festivals; the lamb sacrifice and matzot at Pesach; the harvest celebrations at Shavuot and Sukkot; and the sounding of the shofar and the ‘day of affliction’ in the seventh month.

By far the more interesting part of the parashah, in this writer’s opinion, is the narrative section (25:10-27:22) which deal with questions of summary justice, inheritance and the appointment of Joshua as the successor to Moses.

The portion takes its name from Pinchas, the son of Eleazar and the grandson of Aaron, who kills an Israelite man and a Moabite woman whom he discovers in a compromising situation. Pinchas’s action is considered meritorious by some schools of thought but with ambivalence by other commentators. His act of vigilantism is understood by his advocates as zeal and energy to put right an obvious and flagrant wrong but rabbinic tradition cautions against extremism and reiterates respect for the rule of law, observing that, had Pinchas asked a rabbinical court if it was permitted to kill the sinners in accord with the halachah, the court would have ruled, ‘The law may permit it but we do not follow that law!’ (Sanhedrin 82a).

A different category law is invoked by the daughters of Zelophchad (27:1-11) who approach Moses to support their claim to perpetuate the name and lands of their deceased father in the absence of a male heir. Moses consults God who supports their plea, and, although rabbinic law did provide for the maintenance of the widow and daughters of a man who died without male heirs, it was only in 1943 that the Chief Rabbinate of Palestine finally resolved the issue on an equal basis.

One of the most moving pieces of Torah is a mere nine verses (12-23) in chapter 27 whereby Moses discusses with God the appointment of Joshua as his successor. Democracy is unknown in the Torah as a means of selecting leaders but Moses now acknowledges the finality that he, as with all of his generation, will die in the wilderness and thus not enter the Promised Land. The Torah tells us this is because of his lack of faith when striking rather than talking to the rock (Numbers 20:6-13). Whatever the harshness or fairness of this and as Moses is reminded of it (27:14), his thoughts turn to the future of the Children of Israel. Moses suggest the appointment of a military leader (27:17) but also a person who has an internal spirit/ energy – Joshua. God concurs and requests that Moses induct him by the laying of hands in the presence of the whole community, thereby symbolically and actually offering support to his successor.

In doing so, Moses, the reluctant leader, has now fulfilled the major task of his life: to lead the Hebrews from Egypt to the cusp of the Promised Land, from slavery to freedom, and from humiliation to independence. He required a number of skills including patience, faith and an intimate relationship with God but his greatest moment was simply the ability to hand over that leadership. Poignantly Moses recognition of this takes place on the heights of Avarim, at the top of Mount Nebo, overlooking the Promised Land which Moses and future readers of Torah appreciate will offer a fruitful future for both his successor, Joshua, and indeed for his whole project, the Jewish people.

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