July 10, 2012
Last week’s Torah portion (Balak) concluded with the story of Pinchas (פִּינְחָס), whose zealotry saved Israel from catastrophe. Recall that under the advice of the false prophet Balaam (בִּלְעָם), young Moabite women were used to seduce the Israelite men at the outskirts of the camp. According to Rashi, before a Moabite temptress would consent to sexual relations, she would require that the man bow down before the god of Moab, named Baal Peor (בַּעַל פְּעוֹר). This reveals the connection between fornication (i.e., zenut: זְנוּת) and avodah zarah (“strange worship” or idolatry).
After Israel “joined itself to Baal Peor,” the anger of HaShem began to burn (Num. 25:1-3), and Moses was instructed to hang all the leaders who were illicitly involved with the Moabites. “Take all the chiefs of the people and hang them in the sun before the LORD, that the fierce anger of the LORD may turn away from Israel” (Num. 25:4). Moses then instructed the judges (שְׁפָטִים) of Israel to slay everyone who had “joined themselves to the idol.” According to the Talmud (Sanhedrin 82), many members of the tribe of Shimon then went to their leader, Zimri (זִמְרִי), to complain. Zimri then assembled 24,000 Israelites and abducted Cozbi (כָּזְבִּי), the daughter of King Balak. In a show of chutzpah, Zimri brought her before the congregation of Israel and challenged Moses, “Son of Amram, is a heathen woman forbidden or permitted? And should you say that she is forbidden, who permitted Yitro’s daughter to you?” Moses did not have an immediate answer, so Zimri defiantly took Cozbi into a tent to have sexual relations with her. Meanwhile, the LORD sent a plague that began killing the followers of Zimri…
Pinchas, the grandson of Aaron, then appealed to Moses. “O great uncle! Did you not teach us when you descended from Sinai that he who cohabits with a heathen woman is punished by zealots?” Pinchas then went after Zimri and Cozbi and discovered them in the very act. He took his spear and threw it, skewering them both (Num. 25:8). After this, God stopped the plague, though not before the 24,000 followers of Zimri were all killed (Num. 25:9).
Pinchas is described as a zealot (קַנָּאִי) in the Torah (Num. 25:11). Some commentators suggest that he “took the law into his own hands,” though it’s clear that his zeal was considered the righteous response to the situation. צְדָקָה תַּצִּיל מִמָּוֶת / tzedakah hatzil mi-mavet: “rightousness saves from death” (Prov. 10:2; 11:4). The ulterior motive of the Moabites was to destroy the Jews by enticing them to worship the god of Moab, and this was as serious a matter as the sin of the Golden Calf. Pinchas realized that fornication (i.e., avodah zarah) would lead to the destruction of the Jewish people. His courageous and righteous action was therefore justified and the LORD honored him a brit kehunat olam (בְּרִית כְּהֻנַּת עוֹלָם), a “covenant of a perpetual priesthood” (Num. 25:11-13). Because he risked his life for the sake of the truth, God established his appointment as a priest in Israel with special standing.
After the plague had ended, Moses was instructed to count the Israelite tribes for the purposes of inheritance in the Promised Land (Num. 26:1-2,53). He was then told to ascend Mount Avarim (הַר הָעֲבָרִים) to glimpse the land before he died. Moses asked the LORD who should be appointed as his successor to lead the people of Israel: “Let the LORD, the God of the spirits of all flesh (אֱלהֵי הָרוּחת לְכָל־בָּשָׂר), appoint a man over the congregation” (Num. 27:16). So Hashem said to Moses, “Take Joshua the son of Nun (יְהוֹשֻׁעַ בִּן־נוּן), a man in whom is the Spirit (אִישׁ אֲשֶׁר־רוּחַ בּו), and lay your hand on him. (Note that the practice of semichah [סְמִיכָה], or “laying on of hands,” was used for the purposes of sacrifice as well as for the transfer Moses’ authority to Joshua.
It is interesting, in this connection, that Hashem did not choose Pinchas to be Moses’ successor. This is almost surprising, since the narrative that leads up to the choice of Moses’ successor suggests that Pinchas would have been the logical choice. Pinchas was full of zeal who saved Israel from destruction. He was honored with an eternal covenant of peace. He was renowed as a great hero of Israel. Even the Torah portion itself is named in his honor….
To try to understand why Pinchas was not chosen, some of the sages note that immediately following the appointment of Joshua as Israel’s new leader, Hashem commanded Moses regarding the continual offering, or the Korban Tamid (Num. 27:22-23, 28:1-4). Is there any connection between the idea of continual sacrifice and the selection of Joshua as the one who would lead Israel into the Promised Land?
According to a fascinating midrash cited by Rabbi Yaakov ibn Chaviv, several of the sages of the Mishnah (i.e., Tannaim) attempted to choose the central verse that summarized the meaning of the entire Torah. Ben Zoma said, “We have found the most all-inclusive verse to be, ‘Hear O Israel, the LORD is our God; the LORD is One'” (Deut. 6:4). Ben Nanas said, “We have found the most all-inclusive verse to be, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself'” (Lev. 19:18). Shimon ben Pazi said, “We have found the most all-inclusive verse to be, ‘The one lamb you shall offer in the morning, and the other lamb you shall offer at twilight'” (Num. 28:4). One of the sages stood up and said, “It is ben Pazi who is correct.”
In other words, according to the sages, the key idea of the Torah centers on the idea of sacrifice, and in particular, the continual sacrifice of the lamb. The daily sacrifice of the lamb is more important than either the Shema or even the duty to love others… The continual (i.e., tamid: תָּמִיד) sacrifice of the lamb is central to the meaning of the Torah. It is the Torah’s most all-inclusive idea.
Rashi notes that Joshua embodied the concept of “continual sacrifice” (קָרְבָּן תָּמִיד) in his life. He rose up early and remained late at night in the Tent of Meeting, “never departing” from it (Exod. 33:11). Within the tent Joshua would study Torah and worship the LORD. “Elazar, Pinchas, and the Seventy Elders were surely worthy, but Moses chose Joshua because he had always sacrificed his personal comfort to excel in Torah knowledge” (Rashi on Avot 1:1). Joshua’s constant devotion made him a “living sacrifice” , similar to the Korban Talmid that God desired every day. It was Joshua’s constancy that made him a better guardian of the Torah than Pinchas. As it is written: נצֵר תְּאֵנָה יאכַל פִּרְיָהּ / notzer te’enah yochal piryah: “He who guards the fig tree will eat its fruit” (Prov. 27:18). The Torah is compared to a fig tree because its fruits are gathered little by little over time, the product of constancy and faithfulness.