Pinchas (Numbers 25:10 – 30:1)

This week, we consider several types of inheritance/baton passing. Pinchas is awarded the hereditary priesthood.  There is another census of the tribes for allotment of land which will be passed down through the generations, but apparently only through a male line, as the 5 brotherless daughters of Zelophehad discover. Joshua is formally presented as the successor of Moses, who has been told his death nears.  The portion ends with all those little passages we add as second scroll readings, about sacrifices and other activities for the Sabbath, Rosh Chodesh, and holidays.

In the last 9 verses of last week’s reading, Israelite men are openly consorting with Moabite and Midianite women and are worshiping the local god, Baal Peor. The Lord sends a plague (surprise) and orders Moses to have the ringleaders impaled. Just then, before that can be done, an Israelite man and Midianite woman (later identified as Zimri, a chieftain from Shimon, and Cozbi, a Midianite princess) start fornicating in public in front of the Tabernacle. Pinchas, son of Eleazar the High Priest, is so enraged he acts on his own. He takes a spear and stabs the two of them together. Then the plague ends, after 24,000 have died.  

The remaining 9 verses of the story are read this week.  One would expect Pinchas to be reprimanded for acting like a vigilante, but no.  He is rewarded with the Lord’s “covenant of peace” and “covenant of eternal priesthood.”  What?  Pinchas is no symbol of peace. Indeed, as I have noted here before, in the Torah scroll, the word for peace, shalom, is written with a broken letter vav, a signal that “peace that results from violence, even required violence, is defective.”  The awarding of the hereditary priesthood also contains a note of ambivalence.  Rabbi Brad Hirschfeld wrote a few years ago, “Pinchas is blessed with Divine peace. Clearly something which neither he nor any religious zealot possess” but need. The rabbis are traditionally uncomfortable with zealotry and treat Pinchas as a singular case.  This is also one reason that the haftarah nominally assigned to this portion, I Kings 18:46 – 19:21, about Elijah (Pinchas’ spiritual twin in zealotry) and the still, small voice, is rarely read, only when this portion is read before the Fast of Tammuz (this year, July 9).  It will next be read in 2035.

After an attack on the Midianites, a new census is taken, both for military needs and to ascertain how the land is to be divided up.  The population of men able to bear arms is almost unchanged from 39 years before, down 0.3%.  Levites (1 month and up) went up 4.5%.  The tribes’ fates varied from a 63% loss by Shimon (it will eventually disappear) to a 64% increase for Manasseh.

Speaking of the tribe of Manasseh, one of its members, Zelophehad, has died without sons. But he has 5 daughters: Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah They want his portion in the Promised Land.  Moses kicks their request upstairs.  The Lord agrees with the daughters: where there are no sons, the inheritance will pass to the daughter(s). 

Moses, having been told that his death is approaching, and reminded why, asks the Lord to pick his successor.  Why didn’t he just say, let’s announce that Joshua will take over? Was he possibly hoping one of his own sons might be chosen? Note that this section directly follows the laws of inheritance. But the Lord picks Joshua and tells Moses to present him formally to Eleazar the priest and to the people as his successor. 

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, in The Crown All Can Wear (Pinchas 5779), considers why Joshua was chosen, that “to be a leader it is also necessary to be a follower. Leadership presupposes discipleship. That is what Joshua knew, and what led to him being chosen as Moses’ successor. The tradition is summed up in the famous Maimonidean ruling:

With three crowns was Israel crowned – with the crown of Torah, the crown of Priesthood, and the crown of Kingship. The crown of Priesthood was bestowed on Aaron and his descendants. The crown of Kingship was conferred on David and his successors. But the crown of Torah is for all Israel. Whoever wishes, let them come and take it. Do not suppose that the other two crowns are greater than that of Torah…. The crown of Torah is greater than the other two crowns. (MaimonidesMishneh Torah, Hilchot Talmud Torah 3:1.)”

What we all inherit is not the crown of Torah itself, but rather our opportunity to reach out and take it.

For the next 10 weeks, the haftarah is determined not by the content of the Torah portion, but by the date.  This year, July 9 was 17 Tammuz, the Fast of Tammuz, which inaugurates the Three Weeks, a time of mourning leading to Tisha B’Av (9 Av), when the Temples were destroyed. Three “Haftarot of Rebuke” are chanted before Tisha B’Av and seven Haftarot of Consolation after, not a bad ratio, mood-wise.  This week we chant the first Haftarah of Rebuke, Jeremiah 1:1 – 2:3, his call to prophecy.  The imagery in verse 2:2 has become part of the High Holiday liturgy: “ I remember for your sake the kindness of your youth, your love as a bride–How you followed Me in the wilderness, in a land not sown.” Rebuke is not without hope born from memories of gentler, more loving times.

Shabbat shalom and zei gezunt,


Grammar Vigilantism

tph apostrophe man


Surprises in the 1911 United Kingdom Census (excerpts)

Still battling towards their goal of universal suffrage, tens of thousands of women decided to boycott the 1911 census by resisting being counted in protest. Many women hid and attempted to confuse enumerators by travelling to different addresses throughout the night, while others opted for a more creative approach. The Women’s Freedom League launched a campaign inspired by Gandhi’s principle of passive resistance encouraging women from all over the UK to return their forms ‘spoilt’. Their supporters filled in forms, not with their details but with slogans such as, ‘I don’t count so I won’t be counted’…

Some husbands, however, did not support their wives’ political beliefs or attempts to boycott the census. At the bottom of the form, in red ink, you can see Company Director Arthur Edward Maund’s attempt at correcting his wife’s attempted sabotage. ‘Unfortunately, my wife being a suffragette put her pen through her name,’ he writes. ‘A silly suffragette to defeat the object of the census, to which as head of the household I object’. Someone probably spent the night on the sofa!


tph dilbert succession plan


10 Unbelievable Inheritance Stories

2. The homeless brothers who inherited more than 100 million euros

A pair of penniless down and outs inherited a share of a 4 billion GBP fortune after a bizarre twist in family fortunes. Brothers Zsolt and Geza Peladi were so poor they lived in a cave outside Budapest, Hungary, and sold scrap they found on the street for pennies. Now both of them and a sister who lives in America inherited their grandmother’s massive fortune after a life of poverty. “We knew our mother came from a wealthy family but she was a difficult person and had severed ties with them, then later abandoned us and we lost touch with her and our father until she eventually died,” said Geza, 43.

They learned of their good fortune after homelessness charity workers in Hungary were contacted by lawyers handling the estate of the brothers’ maternal grandmother who died recently in Baden-Wurttenberg, Germany. Under German law direct descendants are automatically entitled to a share of any estate – that would pass from their dead mother to them.


The Yo-Yo Diet Guide to the Jewish Holidays
from How to Be an Extremely Reform Jew by David Bader

Holiday                 Fast or Feast

Rosh Hashanah       Feast

Tzom Gedalia         Fast

Yom Kippur           More fasting

Sukkot                   Feast

Hoshanah Rabbah   More feasting

Simchat Torah        Keep feasting

Month of Heshvan  No feasts or fasts for a whole month. Get a grip on yourself.

Hanukkah              Eat potato pancakes

Tenth of Tevet       Do not eat potato pancakes

Tu B’Shevat            Feast

Fast of Esther        Fast

Purim                     Eat pastry

Passover                 Do not eat pastry

Shavuot                  Dairy feast (cheesecake, blintzes etc.)

17th of Tammuz    Fast (definitely no cheesecake or blintzes)

Tisha B’Av               Very strict fast (don’t even think about cheesecake or blintzes)

Month of Elul         End of cycle. Enroll in Center for Eating Disorders before High  Holidays arrive again.

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