Deuteronomy 1:1 – 3:22
This week we not only begin a new book of Torah, but we observe Shabbat Hazon, which is the Shabbat immediately preceding Tisha B’Av.
There is a powerful connection between this parasha, the concept of Shabbat Hazon, which literally means “sabbath of vision,” and the observance of Tisha B’Av. In Devarim, Moses begins his first major speech before his death, and starts off by reminding Israel of the MANY terrible mistakes it made during the forty years of wandering. While this might seem harsh, it is more like tough love – and in an odd way I am reminded of hockey all star Wayne Gretzky. He once quipped that 100% of the shots he doesn’t take, don’t go in. Moses forces us to confront our past deeds, because 100% of time, we cannot learn from the mistakes which we do not acknowledge.
On Tisha B’Av we remember and mourn the destruction of both the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem, as well as many other tragedies which befell our people on this date in years past. Yet Tisha B’Av leaves us with a theological dilemma: how could God have allowed the destruction of either Temple, let alone both? In the Talmud we learn that the problem was not God, but us:
Why was the First Temple destroyed? Because three things happened in it: idol worship, forbidden sexual relations and bloodshed … But the Second Temple, in which there was so much Torah study, observance of commandments, and acts of good deeds – why was it destroyed? Because there was senseless hatred inside of it. This teaches you that senseless hatred is equal to the three worst sins in Judaism: idol worship, forbidden sexual relations, and bloodshed. [Talmud Bavli, Yoma 9b]
History offers a stern warning to those who learn hatred.
We, a people steeped in history and memory, are ignoring this warning.
Today, the Jewish people is a people divided, and senseless hatred festers in our midst. There is a growing tension between the Diaspora and Israel; there is infighting within the State of Israel about the legitimacy of non-Orthodox Jews and Judaism, and by corollary, the definition of who is a Jew; an increasing number of American Jews have stopped speaking with fellow Jews who do not share their positions on Israel or politics.
On this Sabbath of Vision, let us look to Moses. Let us acknowledge our mistakes that we can learn to be better. Let us seek ways to speak with each other rather than scream at, ignore or avoid those with whom we disagree. Let us acknowledge our differences, and yet seek ways to be one people, here and in our ancient homeland.
For how could we possibly bear to add another calamity to the list, for Tisha B’Av.
Numbers 30:2 – 36:13
On Shabbat we will conclude the book of Numbers, which is a bigger deal than you might think: forty years have now passed since the Exodus from Egypt, the Israelites are encamped on the edge of the Promised Land, and Joshua has already been selected to succeed Moses to lead us across the Jordan River. The narrative of our journey from Egypt to the Promised Land is just about complete, and some would say, ends here.
The book of Deuteronomy stands apart from the other four books of Torah, because it primarily contains the words of Moses, rather than God. Almost the entire book consists of a series of speeches Moses delivered to Israel in the weeks before his death. They recount the past forty years, contain all 613 commandments in the Torah, and offer tough-love wisdom for how to prosper in the Promised Land. Indeed, the word Deuteronomy literally means “second-law” – meaning a recapitulation of what has already been given. This has led some scholars to theorize that perhaps there are only four books of Torah proper, and that the book of Deuteronomy should be grouped with the book of Joshua in the prophetic cannon.
Regardless of whether we accept this premise, how would Torah conclude if there were only four books instead of five? With a story of inheritance.
Zelophehad was an Israelite from the tribe of Manasseh, who had five daughters and no sons. In last week’s parasha, he died, and although the law was that only sons could inherit land, his five daughters petitioned Moses for the right to inherit from their father. Moses, amazingly, does not deny the request but instead asks God, who grants permission. This week, their story – which seems almost a footnote in the larger narrative – evolves into the conclusion of Numbers.
Chapter 36, the final chapter, is all about a legal challenge to the decision. The tribal leaders of Manasseh complain to Moses, observing that the division of land between the tribes is carefully balanced between the tribes by clan and family. They argue that if the daughters of Zelophehad marry outside of the tribe and take their father’s property with them that the balance of power would be changed – at the expense of Manasseh.
What a conundrum! The elders are correct about the balance of power changing if the daughters marry outside of the tribe. Yet God has clearly given the five daughters of Zelophehad the right to inherit from their father, a right which cannot be revoked.
Moses’ response is extraordinary: the daughters are free to marry whomever “is good in their eyes,” but only within the tribe of Manasseh. This tribal limit did not exist for women who did not inherit land, but was deemed necessary here to preserve the larger integrity of tribal balance of power. Presumably, if they wished, any of the daughters of Zelophehad could choose to marry outside of the tribe and give up her portion.
They all chose husbands from within their own tribe.
Today, we can criticize this resolution in several ways. The very idea of a patriarchal system grates against our understanding of feminism, and the details of this compromise do not seem even close to sufficient as a real solution. I strongly agree with these critiques. Yet, this legal compromise is not about feminism, nor the rights of individuals at all, even if it seems so on the surface.
Earlier in the parasha we read about another petition to Moses, this time from the leaders of the tribes of Reuben and Gad, and then later from half of the tribe of Manasseh. They all prefer the land on the east side of the Jordan river to the actual Promised Land, and ask to settle there instead of crossing over into Canaan. Moses is concerned that the rest of the Israelites would be demoralized if they stay behind, and allows them to settle on the east bank only if they will fully commit to the conquest with the rest of Israel. They can leave their children and cattle behind, but the men will only be able to return once all the Promised Land is under Israelite control.
What is the connection between this story and the daughters of Zelophehad? In both cases, there is a tension between the desires of the individual (or tribe) and the needs of the larger community. In both cases, the wishes of the individual are supported, but only if they do not harm the needs of the community. When the desires of the individual conflict with the health of the community, the health of the community takes preference. The sons of Reuben, Gad and half of Manasseh must fight the war, even though their own land is already secured – and some of them will sacrifice their lives. The daughters of Zelophehad must marry within their tribe, trading a narrower choice of future husbands for the right to inherit land. In both examples, harmony is preserved between the tribes of a fledgling nation.
Personal sacrifice for the greater good, then, is the theme which leads us to the final verse of the book: “These are the commands and the regulations that the Lord charged the Israelites by the hand of Moses in the steppes of Moab by the Jordan across from Jericho.” (Num. 36:13)
For us, sacrifice is not something that was performed by priests alone, it is something we still do today – for each other and for God.
Numbers 25:10 – 26:4
There is nothing easy about the story of Pinchas. At the end of last week’s parasha, God is angry because the people are worshipping idols. Moses, on behalf of God, commands the judges of Israel to kill any of their men who worship the Canaanite god Baal Peor. Pinchas, the grandson of Aaron, saw an Israelite chieftain in bed with a Midianite princess whose people worshipped Baal Peor; he grabbed his spear and skewered the two together, killing them with one thrust.
That is the end of the portion.
So, what happens next? Parashat Pinchas. This week’s parasha opens as God speaks to Moses and announces that Pinchas has saved the rest of Israel through his quick action. Even more, God not only rewards Pinchas with a special Covenant of Peace, but also grants an additional Covenant of Perpetual Priesthood for him and all of his descendants. No other person in all of Hebrew Bible is granted either of these covenants.
How do we make sense of this passage? Does Torah really teach us to be zealots, to become religious extremists? Is this what God truly wants of us?
On the surface, the answer seems to be yes. However, the rabbinic tradition is a little more ambivalent. On the one hand, who are we to question God? On the other hand, where does this kind of behavior lead us?
The sages hesitated to criticize God. If God commanded the deaths of idol worshippers, then Pinchas was correct in his action and deserving of his reward. Yet, the rabbis also taught that God no longer commands us to kill in the name of God, and warned us about the dangers of crossing the line from righteousness to self-righteousness. They ask us to walk a delicate line between a literal reading of the text, and how what we learn from the text should influence our own actions.
Perhaps the best response came from Rabbi Yehuda Leib Eiger (1817-88), whose words ring true now more than ever:
The two parashiyot preceding Pinchas, namely Hukkat and Balak, are in most cases read together on one Sabbath, and the same is true for the two following it, Mattot and Masa’ei. On the other hand, Parashat Pinchas is always read by itself. The reason is because Pinchas was a zealot, and every zealot is on his own. Woe to the generation whose zealots unite. (Itturei Torah, Parashat Pinchas)
Hi there! I am the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, Maryland, where I have served since 2016.
(c) copyright 2018 by Rabbi Gary Pokras