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Parshat Pinchas 2017
We know Pinchas as the guy who speared the Israelite man and Midianite woman who were dancing naked. And the parsha on his name also contains census lists and the sacrifices to be brought for holidays and other special days. But hidden in the crevices are the names of people, leaders and laymen, who together create an ideal task force for a people – any people.
The first figure we encounter is, of course Pinchas. The son of Elazar the priest and grandson of Aharon. At the conclusion of last week’s parsha, when Moshe was unable to function in the face of combined idolatry and debauchery, Pinchas took up a weapon and killed the two leaders, Zimri of the tribe of Shimon and Kozbi daughter of Zur, who was a Midianite leader.
Pinchas’ actions are viewed as zealotry, the impetuous act of a person who cannot bear to see his values (as well as those of his great-uncle Moshe’s) being trampled in public. And God seems to praise his actions – he is granted a covenant of peace, a strange reward to receive for violence. In other words, the religious leader should be motivated by almost zealous enthusiasm (even though extreme religious leaders have led and continue to lead to unrestrained and unconscionable killing and cruelty). And yesterday we saw where religious zealotry can lead.
By the way, Pinchas appears again, in next week’s parsha, leading the people in war against Midian. However, in the book of Joshua, as High Priest he is sent to investigate possible acts of paganism by the two and a half tribes that settled east of the Jordan River. Rather than charge in with sword drawn and zeal dripping from his brow, he asks questions and receives satisfactory answers, thus averting a possible civil war between the Israelites on the east bank and west bank of the Jordan. Indeed, Pinchas did grow into a man of peace.
The second figure to appear in our parsha is Joshua whom we have met before. Moshe knows that his days are numbered, and he requests that God appoint a person to lead the people in and lead the people out, so that the Israelites will not be like sheep without a shepherd. This in itself is a remarkable request. Too many leaders, old and new, believe that they are the alpha and omega of leadership and that apre moi, le deluge.
Joshua is inducted in a three-stage process. Moshe lays his hands on him, Joshua stands before the high priest and the nation, and Moshe imparts his authority to him. We see that a leader is not a zealot. He is a thinking, considerate and wise person who can control himself and others for the good of the whole.
Obviously, Pinchas and Joshua are national figures. Their actions affect the security and moral fiber of the people. The presence of such figures is essential for the smooth and successful functioning of a government or authority.
This leaves us with the last five figures in the parsha: the daughters of Zelophchad, a man who had only daughters, no sons, and they wanted the right to inherit their father’s estate. Even a superficial glance at what they did is enough to raise eyebrows. A closer look should make our eyes pop and our jaws drop. “And they stood” – listen carefully – “before Moshe and before Elazar the Priest and before the princes and the entire nation, at the entrance to Ohel Moed,” the Tent of Meeting where Moshe and God chit-chatted.
They stood in front of the leader, the priest, the princes, the people and God. Nothing less. The closest equivalent in our times would be a woman who lodges a complaint of sexual harassment against a very high official, an act most likely to have severely negative consequences for her for life. Think Monica Lewinsky.
We have no idea what gave these five women the courage to demand their rights, other than their desire to not lose their inheritance. We can only surmise that their parents did a good job of bringing them up, of inculcating them with a spirit of not giving up, of fighting for what is theirs.
And this may be the reason – I have not found any written commentary explaining why the daughters of Zelophchad, all five of them, are mentioned by name, three times in two parshot. Perhaps the redactor was so overwhelmed each time he read the story that he shook his head and said, Wow! I have to give them credit again, and he included their names.
I believe that the juxtaposition of the story of Zelophchad’s daughters with the stories of Pinchas and Joshua shows that a nation can be strong only if its internal system of laws is just. A strong leader and even a strong priest can lead an army into war and be victorious. But what happens when the soldiers come home?
We know from history, past and present, that when governments feel pressure building up internally, they seek an external enemy against whom to focus the people’s energies, often in war or pogrom. By allowing the people to vent their frustrations against ‘them’ the leaders may earn a reprieve, at least for a while.
But if a country, even one with objective problems and threats from outside, can maintain a lifestyle that seeks to satisfy the needs of all of its citizens as well as it can, there’s no need for wars other than those inescapable ones imposed by others.
This week we entered the three weeks leading up to Tisha B’Av, marking two of the blacker periods in our history, we should keep the lessons of the parsha in mind and hope that efforts like those of Zelophchad’s daughters will be replicated and fulfilled in our time as well.