Parshat Pinchas (Numbers 25:10-30:1)

Rabbi David Stav

The division of the Torah into weekly portions was not determined on Mount Sinai, and, in fact, is not an ancient practice (relatively speaking). There were times in our history when the Torah reading cycle took three years to complete, and the division into weekly portions was adjusted accordingly. For at least the past thousand years, however, we have been completing the Torah reading cycle in one year. Jewish communities thus divided the text in a way that allowed us to complete our Torah reading in one year – on Simchat Torah.

We can safely assume that the considerations involved in determining the size of these weekly readings included the length of the weekly text; the desire to conclude major stories in the narrative within the bounds of the parsha; and an attempt to conclude each parsha on a positive note.

All of these principles were violated along the seamline between this week’s parsha, Pinchas, and last week’s, Balak.

Here is a recap: last week’s portion ended with a description of how the nation of Israel cohabitated with Moabite women. One unnamed Israelite approaches Moses with a Midianite woman, and Moses was at his wit’s end. The nation wept, until suddenly, a man named Pinchas steps out of the woodwork, holding a spear, and impales the anonymous couple. Next, a plague breaks out in the Israelite camp, killing twenty-four thousand people, and with that, Parshat Balak draws to a close.

This week’s parsha begins by lauding Pinchas and retelling his heroic act. The story evokes a slew of questions: Why was it permissible or necessary to slay these two people? Why did the plague break out? Many more questions can be asked, but on a literary level, the dilemma is even greater.

We mentioned above the rule of thumb to endeavor to finish our weekly readings on a positive note. But a horrible plague is a decidedly UNHAPPY ending!

Our uneasiness is confounded by the opening verses of this week‎’s parsha, which exalts Pinchas’s character – the very individual who killed the cohabitors: “Pinchas the son of Elazar the son of Aaron the priest has turned My anger away from the People of Israel … Therefore, say, ‘I hereby give him My covenant of peace.’”

That would have been an excellent ending for last week’s portion. Why, then, did Jewish communities choose to separate these two stories? Moreover, if this was their choice, why is this week’s portion called Parshat Pinchas, though we find nothing in the text about Pinchas’s actions? After all, everything he actually did was already included in last week’s parsha. The text of this week’s portion continues by revealing the names of all of the lead characters in the episode from the previous parsha.

It turns out that the sinner who approached Moses was none other than Zimri Ben Salu, a prince of the tribe of Shimon, and the girl was none other than Kazbi bat Tzur, the daughter of the king of Midian. Assuming this information was known when the events of last week’s parsha transpired, it begs the question of why the Torah chooses to conceal these details, and wait until this week’s portion to reveal the identities of these characters.

The Torah is not a history book written in strict chronological order. True to its name, the Torah intends to teach us the fundamentals and values of life through a study of the events described within. If the Torah does not specify the names of the characters when relating the event, we should understand that Pinchas’s actions were not driven by any agenda or political account that needed to be settled.

Rather, Pinchas witnessed something that he felt would endanger the continued existence of the Jewish People, and so he acted. The omission of the names of the cohabitors indicates that their identities were irrelevant, and even unrelated, to what Pinchas did. Had Pinchas known who these people were, we could be led to believe that his deeds had ulterior motives.

The verse also stresses that Pinchas was the son of Elazar, who was the son of Aaron, the priest. Generally, characters in the Torah are introduced by their own names, and the names of their fathers, not their grandfathers. Here, however, the text emphasizes that Pinchas was Aaron’s grandson, the same Aaron who had always pursued peace. But by mentioning Aaron’s name, the Torah is in effect implying that Aaron supported what his grandson did.

The portion ends with a description of a plague, contrary to our tradition of ending portions on a positive note, and this is perhaps meant to shake us up a bit with the magnitude of the decimation (24,000 died in the plague, compared to 3,000 who perished due to the Sin of the Golden Calf). It intends to stress how Pinchas was acting out of character, but did what needed to be done given the unusual circumstances.

Parshat Pinchas is the “aftershock” of that trauma. After such a difficult episode, the people needed to begin analyzing the events and drawing conclusions, picking up the pieces, surveying the damage, and most importantly, preparing for a new reality that was emerging in plain view. The Torah repeats the story in greater detail here in order to emphasize how precipitous the situation had become, with assimilation taking hold of the highest levels of leadership.

Finally, Pinchas, whose basic role was to bring peace to the people, had no choice but to take up a spear and use it to save the nation from vanishing into oblivion. The survivors now needed to prepare for the challenge the Midianites had posed.

The question of cultural assimilation into the nations living in the Promised Land will loom large throughout the period of the Judges and the First Temple. In this struggle, the sword should not be our preferred method for ensuring our unique identity. Rather, we will need the peacekeeping efforts of Aaron, Pinchas’s grandfather, to explain to the Jewish People why preserving its national existence is so vital.

The separation between the portions of Balak and Pinchas teaches us that spears should be a rare sight, though the fact that the event spills over into the next weekly portion teaches us that the spiritual foundations for the event will remain with us for thousands of years, and in fact, will never disappear. Therefore, we need to develop the most effective tools for handling the challenges of our time and times to come.

Shabbat Shalom 


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