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Weekly Parsha

Parsha Pinchas opens with the continuation of the story of Pinchas, which began at the end of the preceding parsha.  As we pointed out previously, the story of Pinchas is itself part of the larger story of the Jewish people’s encounter with the Midianite-Moabite alliance on the eve of their entry into the Land of Israel.  After describing Pinchas’ reward for arresting both the sudden moral decline of the Jewish people and the Divine plague that resulted from it, the Torah proceeds to describe the census occasioned by the decimation wrought by the plague.  This census serves as a prologue to the subsequent discussion of issues pertinent to the conquest of the Promised Land, for the land is to be divided up according to the results of the census.  After the census, the Torah discusses; the laws of inheritance; the passage of leadership from Moses to Joshua, and the daily offering and additional festive offerings offered in the Temple.


Now, we know that a parsha’s name applies to its entire content, not just its opening.  The question, then, is what do the census, the laws of inheritance, the passage of leadership, and the daily and festive offerings have to do with Pinchas?


Furthermore, why is the story of Pinchas split between the end of the preceding parsha and the beginning of this one?  It would seemingly have been more logical to finish off the story (which only takes a few verses, after all) at the end of parsha Balak and begin the next parsha with the census.  True, the census was necessitated by the events of the Pinchas story, but it looks forward toward the eventual conquest of the Holy Land and thus goes together with the subsequent subject matter.


To understand this, let us recall that in the preceding parsha, the Torah describes the story of Balak in detail because there are lessons in it that are essential for the Jews to learn before they enter the Land of Israel.  (Specifically, these were the messianic prophecies and the idea that the messianic imperative must be applied to even the lowest aspects of reality.)  Similarly, the Torah describes the second act of the drama of Moab-Midian, the story of Pinchas, to convey a lesson that is essential for the Jews to learn before they enter the Land of Israel – and for us to learn in order to enter our personal, small -scale “promised lands,” as well as to hasten the final entry into the Land with the advent of the Messiah.  What is this lesson?  Ironically, and perhaps disturbingly at first, it is that our devotion to G-d must not be limited by the Torah.


When Pinchas slew Zimri and Cozbi, he consulted first with Moses.  Moses told him that while the Torah allows someone overcome by zealousness to slay someone in the act of relations with a non-Jewish woman, this is “a law that is not taught.” i.e., no one can be instructed to do this.  In fact, the sages disapprove of such an act.  Furthermore, the offender is allowed to kill the zealot in self-defense.  In other words, by slaying Zimri, Pinchas was doing something not required of him by the Torah, disapproved of by the sages – and was also risking his own life.


Yet, by acting out of zeal and ignoring the voice of caution, Pinchas put an end to the sinful behaviour of the Jewish people, stayed the plagued that was decimating them, and earned the priesthood for himself and his progeny.  Clearly, he was vindicated. To fully understand the implications of this, we need to take a closer look at the three-way relationship between G-d, the Torah, and the Jewish people.


The Torah, we know, is G-d’s instruction book for the world at large and the Jewish people in particular.  It teaches us how to relate to the world and accomplish our purpose here.  The Torah conveys these lessons to us via our intellect.  We read the Torah, understand what it says, and follow it.  If we do not understand parts of it, we continue to study and seek instruction from its teachers until we do understand it.  Yet there is certainly more to our relationship with G-d than what we can filter through our intellect.  As we have noted previously, there is a spiritual dimension to the relationship between G-d and Israel, as transmitted through the Torah, that transcends, bypasses, and is altogether beyond the realm of intellect.  The inner core of the Jew is bound supra-rationally to G-d, and if the implications of this bond do not always seem rational, this need not surprise or faze us.


In other words, the Torah speaks to our intellect, but at the same time, it opens windows to the supra-intellectual dimension of our relationship with G-d. Its demands on us are outwardly rational but subliminally supra-rational.


Ostensibly, the Torah demands that we sacrifice our lives only in certain cases, if someone threatens to kill us unless we commit adultery, idolatry, or murder, we are required to give up our lives rather than transgress these sins.  In addition, if the ruling regime has declared an all-out war on the Torah and has forbidden its practices, we are required to risk our lives for any aspect of its observance.  In all other cases, however, we are not required to sacrifice our lives, and must in fact transgress the Torah’s laws in order to stay alive.  When the Torah demands that we sacrifice our lives, it is because in these cases it makes sense; self-sacrifice is, in these cases, rational. 


Therefore, as long as the Jew is functioning on a rational level, he will sacrifice his life only in these circumstances,  In all other cases, he know the Torah prefers that he transgress its laws rather than lay down his life, and therefore, this is what he will do. When, however, a Jew feels so strongly connected to G-d that reason and rationales no longer impress him, when his consciousness has been overtaken by his essential, intrinsic, supra-rational identification with G-d, he will not care whether the Torah requires him to sacrifice his life in any particular instance.  His only concern will be for G-d; he functions solely on the adrenaline of his passion for G-d’s causes; even his own life is of no consequence. If, in such a situation, the individual feels that G-d’s agenda in the world is somehow threatened, there is no question as to what he will do.  This intensity of G-d-consciousness puts a person into constant readiness for self-sacrifice.


The goal of life is to make this world (and ourselves) into a home for G-d, with G-d’s reality suffusing every corner of consciousness.  Thus, this readiness for self-sacrifice foreshadows the intensity of Divine consciousness that will characterise the messianic future.  More than that; self-sacrifice is what will bring about the messianic future, for in order to achieve the heightened Divine consciousness that is the goal of creation, we must break out of restrictive rationality and open ourselves up to the world of Divine union that exists beyond the realm of reason.


This, then, is why the lesson of Pinchas was so crucial to the Jewish people as they were about to enter the Land of Israel.  This is the first time that the Torah has indicated that it is necessary to go beyond its dictates.  Having heard about the messianic prophecies of Balaam and set their sights on the true purpose of their imminent conquest, the Jewish people must now realise that this goal can be attained only if they unsheathe their true, inner identification with G-d and His objectives and not limit themselves to the letter of the law.


The same applies to each of us in our own personal lives.  Whenever we are about to reach a goal we have been striving for, we must first silence the inner voices of negativism and opposition.  But in addition, we must be aware that now is not the time for setting limits to our dedication.  The test of our devotion to our ideals is our willingness to give our all for what we believe in.


The same applies to us all as we stand on the threshold of the final Redemption and entry into the Land of Israel.  What is required of us now is readiness to put everything else aside and marshal the best and greatest of what we have in order to see history through to its messianic destiny.  And just as with Pinchas, G-d will assist those who exhibit self-sacrifice in the face of adversity.  He will bless their efforts with success.  History has shown that those who do not bow to the threats of Judaism’s enemies ultimately prevail. 

Parsha Pinchas