Sunday, July 01, 2007

Parshat Pinchas (Rabbi Sedley)

A recurring theme in the first half of this Torah reading is genetic purity. The Torah goes to great lengths to ensure that no doubts are cast on the lineage of the nation. The portion opens with the genealogy of Pinchas. "Pinchas the son of Elazar, the son of Aharon the Priest ..." (Numbers 25; 11). Rashi explains that after Pinchas's zealous act of killing Zimri, the prince of the tribe of Shimon, and Cosbi, the princess of Midian, people began questioning his actions. They accused him of murder, and protested "Have you seen this son of Puti [another name for Jethro], whose grandfather fattened calves for idolatrous purposes, yet he has slain the prince of a tribe of Israel?!" Pinchas's maternal grandfather was Yitro (Jethro), and though he became a convert and joined the Israelites in the desert, he had earlier been the high priest to idolatry. Therefore the Torah traces Pinchas back to Aharon the priest.
Rav Ya'akov Kaminetsky explains that the people were really questioning the purity of his motives. A religious zealot can rarely be motivated purely for the sake of heaven and act totally selflessly for G-d; this was the action of Pinchas. However, often a person acts zealously because their own personal religious sensibilities have been offended. This is not an act for G-d, but the satisfying of one's own desires in the name of G-d and religion. This is totally invalid and has no place in Judaism. Had the Torah not testified to Pinchas's total purity of motive, we would have understood that his act was one of murder, and was no less idolatrous than the former actions of his maternal grandfather. This was the taunt of the nation. Therefore the Torah traces Pinchas's lineage back to Aharon, who was distinguished for his love of mankind and his constant pursuit of peace. Aharon had no concern for his own self-image or prestige, and would attempt to bring peace between individuals and families even if that caused his own degradation. Similarly Pinchas knew that he would possibly be put to death for his actions, yet he correctly understood that this was the only way to save the rest of the nation from the plague that was killing them.
Immediately after this incident G-d again instructs Moshe to take a census of the nation. This time, however, the Torah lists the name of each family twice. "of Chanoch the Chanochi family, of Pallu the Pallui family ..."(Ibid. 26; 5 ff.). Rashi explains that the Torah adds the letter ‘heh’ at the beginning and ‘yud’ at the end of each family's name to show the purity of their lineage. The other nations claimed that if the Egyptians ruled the bodies of the men, subjecting them to constant harsh labour, surely they also had control over the women of the nation, and therefore most of the Jews are really illegitimate descendants of the Egyptians. ‘Yud’ and ‘heh’ spell the name of G-d; G-d added his name to each tribe to testify to the purity and chastity of the Jews in Egypt. In fact the Torah (Leviticus 24; 10) singles out the only exception who was the illegitimate son of an Egyptian.
The Torah continues with G-d instructing Moshe about the laws of inheritance. The Land of Israel is to be apportioned to each tribe according to the names of the fathers' tribes. The daughters of Tzelafchad come to Moshe to complain that they also deserve a portion in the land, even though their father is dead. G-d tells Moshe to accede to their claim, because they are righteous and their claim is just. However the Torah stresses that family land should remain within that family and not be transferred to another. We see that even the land seems to be connected with correct lineage.
Finally, Moshe is commanded to appoint Yehoshua to succeed him as leader of Israel. Yehoshua's name is unique in that he is closely linked to his father. Usually a person is known as ‘ben’ (the son of ...). Yehoshua, however is always called Yehoshua bin Nun. The only other time that the word "bin" appears in the Torah is in Deuteronomy (25; 2) "That if the wicked one is worthy of lashes ...". So Yehoshua could also be describes as "worthy of Nun [his father]". From here it seems that one of Yehoshua's main qualities was his attachment to his father, and his ancestry.
It is not readily apparent why the Torah should be so concerned with lineage, and how this theme connects with the last part of the Torah reading, the section detailing the daily, weekly and annual sacrifices. However the Midrash (Bamidbar Rabba 13; 14) hints at the connection: "One young bull" (Numbers 12; 15), corresponding to Avraham, who was the prime ancestor, "One ram", corresponding to Yitzchak "And one sheep ...", corresponding to Ya'akov. It would appear that the sacrifices are a way of 'reminding' G-d of the actions of the patriarchs, and showing our spiritual connection to them. Avraham is the source of all Jewish genealogy, because G-d said to him "I will give to you, and to your descendants after you the land that you dwell in, the land of Canaan, and I will be G-d for you." (Genesis 17; 8). Our only claim to the Land of Israel is through G-d's promise to Avraham that He would give it to those who are descended from him, and that they will accept Him as their G-d. It is through our biological connection to Avraham and the other patriarchs and matriarchs, and through emulating their faith and dedication, that we have the Torah and the Land of Israel*.
*However someone who converts is able to create new biological connections, as the Talmud says, "A convert is like a new-born baby". They create a relationship to Avraham, as the Torah says of Avraham "Behold my covenant will be with you, and you will become a father of many nations". (Genesis 17; 4).

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