Parashat Pinchas – Erev Shabbat 10 July 2020
Week of 5-11 July 2020
Torah portion: Numbers 25:10-30:1 Haftarah: Jeremiah 1:1-2:3
Theme: Discerning Two Controversial Cases

Parashat Pinchas contains two controversial cases. One is the granting of berit olam (perpetual covenant to Pinchas because of his zealous act when he killed Zimri and Cozbi). The second controversial story is the seeking of justice of five sisters (known as the Daughters of Zelophehad) to have an equal opportunity for landholding as women. Their advocacy led to a change in the law regarding land inheritance.

The case of Pinchas (Phinehas) is much debated. Can an act of violent extremism be justified at all? The commentators showed great discomfort in the act of Phinehas. Two comments stood out for me which pertained to how the name of Phinehas and the word ‘shalom’ were written on the Torah scroll. The yod in the name of Phinehas is smaller than the other letters and there is a break on the vav in the word shalom. Etz Hayyim comments that, “When we commit violence, even if justifiable, the yod in us (standing for the name of God and for y’hudi, ‘Jew’) is diminished.” It commented further that peace sought by “destroying one’s opponent” will be “inevitably flawed” and an “incomplete peace.” (Etz Hayyim, 918)

The next case that we wish to handle in this parashah is the case brought by Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah. The women argued that they should be legal inheritors of land because there was no male heir. Zornberg states that “[t]hey speak as the only possible claimants and executives of their father’s rights within a patriarchal society.” (Zornberg, 266) After the five sisters presented their appeal, “Moses brought their case before the Lord”. (Num 27:5) God’s response was to affirm the position of the women, saying, “ken bnot Tzelofchad dovrot”. (Num 27:6) Something has been lost in the translation of this verse, which simply says, “the plea of Zelophehad’s daughters is just.” (Etz Hayyim, 927) Zornberg considers God’s response as “the most striking moment in this legal drama.” (Zornberg, 263) She posits that the phrase depicts a “gratified response” and excitement from God. Finally, some Israelites are speaking rightly! There is a transition from the usual bad speech (complaints, bickering, rumor-mongering, demagoguery, etc.) to good speech.

The two cases represent the kinds of engagements that happen with the text. The case of Phinehas demonstrates the diversity of opinions of the commentators on the text itself. The text of the Torah did not show what was problematic. But the Torah scroll shows some clues of discomfort that also opens the door for further interpretations. The case of the five sisters demonstrates an advocacy within the Torah itself that changed the law in a significant way. This becomes a legal precedence for further decisions on the matter. God, as the law-giver, changed perspectives after a good argumentation based on an actual experience.

For Reflection and Discussion: 1. In what ways do you challenge your way of thinking to respond to a new thought or idea? 2. How do you wrestle with difficult texts in the Scriptures?

Bibliography: Etz Hayyim (New York: 1999); Zornberg, A.G. Bewilderments: Reflections on the Book of Numbers (New York: 2015)


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