Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Walk Article-Pinchas



Rabbi David Walk


            With the stories of Pinchas' zealotry, Zelofchad's daughters and Yehoshua's succession to leadership, the narrative portion of Numbers has come to an end.  There are no more stories in our present volume of the Torah.  Moshe has finished relating the salient events of the forty year sojourn through the wilderness.  So what takes up the final two and half Torah readings, nine chapters and 316 verses of the book? This is about a quarter of the entire book.  Well, it's partly bookkeeping, a little review of the wanderings and a few instructions for settling the Holy Land.   All of this makes some literary sense, but I have one question.  What is the list of annual sacrifices doing here?  The entirety of chapters 28 and 29 is an inventory of the Temple offerings on daily, weekly, monthly and yearly basis.  These verses are the source material for the Musaf (additional) service on Shabbat, Rosh Chodesh and every Biblical holiday.  They are also read in synagogue every Rosh Chodesh and Biblical holiday.  That's why every shul in the world that has more than one Sefer Torah always keeps one rolled to Parshat Pinchas.  But still my question is why is this material here of all places?

            Before we start working on answers, allow me to compound the question.  Logically this catalog of offerings seems to belong in the book of Leviticus, where most Temple practices are presented.  Personally I would have either placed them after the long listing of sacrifices at the beginning of the book or connected to the presentation of the holidays in chapter 23.  Generally one would expect this kind of material in the volume whose rabbinic nickname is Torat Cohanim (the teachings for the Cohanim) rather than here at the end of the book of wilderness wanderings. 

            There are a plethora of answers to this question. The Ramban (Nachmanides, 1194-1270) answered that this material belongs here because the Musaffim (additional offerings on Shabbat, Rosh Chodesh and Chagim) weren't brought until the Jews entered the land of Israel, for they were connected to the nation travelling considerable distances from their homes to the national cultic center.  In the desert they all lived right next to the national religious shrine.  So the Torah records these rites in the context of dividing the country amongst the tribes prior to the conquest of the land.

            A generation later, Rabbeinu Bechaye (d. 1340) explained that Moshe taught this material right after handing over the reins of leadership to Yehoshua, because although he had already commanded the nation to be very careful in the observance of Temple offerings he hadn't yet specified all the details of the offerings.  Now that he saw that he wouldn't accompany them into the land, it was time to inform them of the itemized list.   

In the eighteenth century the Ohr Hachayim suggested that we needed this information immediately after the appointment of Yehoshua to signal an important point of continuity.   A change in leadership doesn't affect the obligations of the community.  These set offerings are an eternal commitment of the Jewish nation, and come only from communal funds.  The relationship of the Jewish nation with God shouldn't fluctuate or waver with any changes in location or leadership.

A century later, the Sfat Emet, second Gerrer Rebbe, remarked that these communal offerings are itemized here because it was known already then that this information would be read during the Three Weeks when we recall and mourn the destruction of both Temples.  This would arouse our hearts to lovingly yearn even more for the Temple and its regular offerings.  On the one hand we pine for the spectacle of the Holy Temple, and on the other hand, we somehow feel that the communal reading of these offerings will be considered before the Divine Throne as if we have actually presented these simple gifts before our Parent in heaven.  He adds that even during the Temple's existence, it was the feeling of closeness which was essential.

Now that just leaves me, your humble writer.  I'd like to offer an answer which is a variation on a theme that I've stated a number of times in the book of Numbers.  This fifth of the Torah is unique in that the stories and the laws are intermingled with each other.  Legal matters and narrative are constantly flip flopping through the text.  Therefore we must constantly ask ourselves, what is the thematic connection between the juxtaposition of this mitzvah with that story?  First we look at the story and then ask why should this mitzvah be right here?  However, there's one more factor.  Our Sages helped us in this endeavor by carefully dividing up the Torah readings to unite the legal and narrative matters which they wanted us to consider together.  Now we're ready for my modest contribution to this discussion.

This week's parsha begins with God rewarding Pinchas for his heroic act of zealotry which was actually recorded at the end of last week's reading.  The Torah informs us that God decides that It will be a covenant of perpetual priesthood for him and his future descendants, because he was passionate for his God and made atonement for the Israelites (Numbers 25:13).   In other words he became a Cohen through his own efforts on behalf of the Jewish community.  Why did he need this particular gift?  He was already a cohen through his birth.  The Zohar suggests that a cohen loses his priestly standing by acts of bloodshed.  So, Pinchas was stripped of his cahuna only to have it restored by Divine fiat.  Why was he deprived of his legacy?  Because the priestly way is steady, regular service, not abrupt, zealous acts.  We learn that from the tamid (constant) offerings.  Everything the cohen does is recurring and uniform.

Then why did Pinchas get the cahuna back?  Because, God who knows our innermost thoughts and feelings, attests to his profound sincerity.  Even this brusque act of violence didn't damage his shleimut (wholeness) in his devotion to God.  For most of us there is a heavy spiritual price for violent acts.  Not so Pinchas.  The norm must be steady commitment to God.  Zealous, violent acts are spiritually risky and must be left for the temimim (spiritual innocent).