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Tell me who your heroes are and I’ll tell you… who your heroes are. Children love superheroes with special powers like Superman and Spiderman. The fact that they defeat the bad and defend the good is secondary. We admire war heroes because they displayed physical and mental bravery in the face of mortal danger beyond anything we could imagine doing.
But there are other types of heroes. We may raise high on ideological pedestals those who dare to speak out against whatever form of suppression we happen to oppose. We may adulate those who take a moral stand against people with money or power, or those who live the kind of life we think is noble but too hard or extreme for us to adopt. In our parsha we find a small but impressive pantheon of heroes who demonstrate their bravery in different situations.
We begin with the eponymous Pinchas, the son of Elazar the Priest who last week boldly took action against the lewd and provocative acts of Zimri, a prince of the tribe of Shimon and Kosbi the daughter of Zur, an important Midianite. With Moshe, the elders and many of the Israelites paralyzed by the couple’s porno show, Pinchas took action. He speared Zimri and he speared Kosbi, killing them and sparking yet another plague on the Israelites in which 24,000 were killed. This week we read that Pinchas is rewarded with the priesthood (forever) and a covenant of peace.
How ironic. A man turns to violence and his reward is peace. But in his defense, Pinchas may actually have learned from this violent encounter. We read in the book of Judges that the tribes on the east side of the Jordan set up an altar, and in response, those west of the river wanted to wage war against them. But the priest – Pinchas – first goes to ascertain what the easterners had in mind, and thus averts civil war. Perhaps one taste of violence was enough for him to prefer peace. Hero number one.
A second type of bravery is shown by the daughters of Zelofchad. Zelofchad died in the desert, and not because he revolted against God or Moshe. He left no sons, only five daughters. They approach Moshe and ask: why shouldn’t WE inherit our father’s parcel of land? Why should his name be blotted out?
This takes a lot of guts. You don’t have to read the Torah or the Bible very deeply to grasp that women are not given much respect. We have a few heroines like Sara, Rivka, Leah and Rachel, we have Devorah the prophetess, Yael who killed Sisera, Chana the mother of Shmuel, and of course Ruth and Esther. The fact that we can count them shows how few there are! So to stand up to Moshe and ask for a new ruling takes guts. We will add them to our list.
And here, we have to give credit where credit is due. God’s answer to the request is – The daughters of Zelofchad are RIGHT! This is amazing. God is saying “I didn’t think of that,” which when you think about it, is rather unsettling. How can God not have thought of something?
Immediately after this, Moshe proves again how superlative he is. His brother and sister have died. He has been informed that he’s not going to enter the land. What does he do? Moshe addresses God and asks Him to appoint a leader over the Israelites, one who will go out before them and come in before them, who will lead them out and bring them in, so that the congregation of God will not be like sheep without a shepherd.
This is nobility, this is heroism in the face of personal disaster. So we have a third hero, Moshe.
By the way, because of the juxtaposition of the requests of Moshe and of the daughters of Zelofchad, a midrash hypothesizes that Moshe was really asking God to appoint his own children as his successors. Now, they did not seem to have done anything of special value while, as the midrash points out, Joshua was always available to serve. He had also led the people out to war against Amalek right after the exodus from Egypt, which fit the job description. He was one of the two spies to oppose the negative report of the other 10 spies about Canaan. He was brave and the divine spirit was with and in him. Joshua is hero number four.
So there we have them. Pinchas, the daughters of Zelofchad, Moshe and Joshua – all of them individuals who demonstrated bravery in ways that would serve the Israelites.
The haftarah adds yet another hero – Elijah the prophet. In the midrash and in cabalistic texts, Elijah is identified with Pinchas because both fought physically to sanctify God’s name. Elijah’s adversary was King Ahab and his wife Jezebel, and he also routed the priests of Baal on Mount Carmel. Hero number five for the day.
We live in a postmodern age of anti-heroes. This does not mean that people do not act altruistically in many situations. The problem is in the larger picture. Where have all the giants gone. But even with the drastic reduction in the level of leadership here and in the world, we must continue to believe that real heroes exist among us, waiting patiently, unseen, like the lamed-vavnikim (the 36 saints among us) who when all seems lost, will step forward and show their own individual heroism. They are our covert hope for our future.