Dvar Torah delivered by Mike Garmise on Shabbat, 17th Tamuz 5776, 23rd July 2016
This has been a week that clearly illustrates the Chinese curse: may your life be interesting. It has been so interesting that a news story that should have kept us on edge for at least three days barely held us for a day. But there’s nothing new under the sun. Just look at the Torah readings these past few weeks. True, they are not as concentrated as this week has been, but taken together, they do a good job.
Let’s start with badmouthing. A couple of important rabbis this week went on record excoriating gays and Reform and Conservative Jews (for starters). Old hat. A few weeks ago Aharon and Miriam muttered about Moshe, about his getting all the credit and how they were no less important than he. They got their comeuppance. The rabbis didn’t.
What about a coup, as in Turkey. Well, a few weeks ago we had Korach and his merry band of 250 leaders who felt they should take control and incidentally enjoy the perks of high office. Erdouan in Turkey gave his revolutionaries a whumping they won’t forget, purging everyone he could from the army, the air force, the police, the supreme court, the television stations and the schools and universities. Well, Korach and his merry men were also purged, albeit by being swallowed up by the earth. Much more theatrical, you must admit.
Rabble rousers like Mr. Trump try to incite the masses to – I don’t know, follow him? We can find our rabble rousers in Parshat Shelach. Moshe sends 12 spies to reconnoiter the land, and 10 come back with good news and bad news. The good news – the land is flowing with milk and honey. The bad news – the inhabitants of the land are too darn strong. Let’s go back to Egypt land! They were punished. What happens to the Donald has yet to be seen.
ISIS can’t attack Europe directly, yet, so it sends its emissaries to do its dirty work. 84 dead in Nice, run over by a huge truck. Last week, King Balak felt he wasn’t up to fighting the Israelites, so he hired Balaam, a very talented and powerful – and mercenary – prophet to whom our God spoke, to curse our people. He came to curse and ended up blessing: twice at the command of God and a third time of his own volition when, as a good mercenary, he saw on which side his bread was buttered.
But as happens so often, after something good, something bad must come to balance it out. After being surreptitiously blessed three times, the Israelites decide that living alone, separate from the nations (as Balaam described them) was lonely, so they went and made merry with the maidens of Midian. They danced and they ate and they bowed down to their idols and generally had a rollicking good time while Moshe and the leaders cried and wrung their hands in frustration. One Israelite was brazen enough to put on an erotic show in front of Moshe.
At this point, another event from this week’s news was preshadowed. This week an Afghani bludgeoned people with an ax on a German train. Well, last week’s parsha ends with Pinchas, the grandson of Aharon (the great peacemaker) going out and axing to death the Israelite and his Midianite consort. Who says there’s anything new under the sun.
And so this week’s parsha begins with Pinchas receiving his prize for being a zealot: he is given a covenant of peace and the priesthood forever. Peace? That’s like giving the Nobel Peace Prize to Alfred Nobel for inventing dynamite. But the priesthood? Why did Pinchas need a covenant? After all, he was cohen, a priest. According to the commentators, the fact that he had killed a person, even out of zealousness for God, made him unfit to serve as a priest. And so God reinstated him.
But this parsha has many more angles. For instance, we have a census, the second in this book. But remember, we are now on the cusp of entering the land, it’s 38 or 39 years since the preceding census in parshat Bamidbar. It’s a whole new generation. Only Yehoshua, Kalev and Moshe remain from the old guard.
We also have Moshe’s plea to God to appoint a leader in his place, one who can go before the people and lead them properly, as Moshe had done. And the rabbis ask why does he ask now? Why not two weeks ago after Aharon and Miriam died? Why not next week, or in the final parsha in two weeks? And the answer they give, in a medrash, is instructive.
Moshe’s plea appears after another story, one that has social issue and female equality written all over it. Zelofchad had 5 daughters, no sons, and they wanted to inherit his land. The law said it went to the sons. Why should they lose out, they asked Moshe? And so Moshe asks God who says – they are right! They should have the right to inherit.
At this point Moshe puts in his request for a new leader in his place. The medrash says that Moshe, knowing that his time was almost up, and seeing that these five women had been accorded their request, thought that he too might be accorded his secret request, which was that one of his two sons would inherit his position.
Because what do we want of life, after security, health, a bit of comfort, and family? We want to know that there is continuity, that someone of ours is carrying on our work. But it was not to be.
Nor is this surprising. Very few strong political leaders have children who are as successful as their parents. The only exception we see today is in Canada. In the book of Samuel, Samuel’s sons are deemed unfit to take his place. Perhaps this is because these children never received the personal attention that the people received from the leader.
In any case, we can see that this parsha, together with those that preceded it, are a mirror of modern times. If only we could be sure that in the long run we, like Pinchas, will be rewarded with a covenant of peace. That – only time will tell.