Sunday, August 7, 2022

On Pinchas - Jane Century, D’var Torah for Dorshei Derekh


by Jane F. Century

Thank you for the opportunity to mine some of the many nuggets of wisdom that today’s parshat Pinchas has to offer us. 

In the interests of full disclosure, I need to preface my comments by saying that prior to this moment, I have given exactly one d’var Torah in my entire life, at the start of last month’s quarterly minyan meeting -- so I hope you will allow me some additional latitude with this one.   I also confess I am something of a spiritual omnivore, so you may find me referencing things outside the pale of the usual Jewish commentaries.

By way of additional background, I am the middle child in a family with a sister one year older than me and a brother three and half years younger than me. 

We grew up in suburban Minneapolis, where all three of us got bussed to after-school Hebrew school for five years from 3rd grade to 7th grade, to a place that was very broadly satirized by the Cohen brothers, who grew up there as well, in their movie A Serious Man.

My family was firmly middle class.  After my parents undertook the expense of celebrating a bat mitzvah and luncheon for my older sister when she turned 13 and knowing that my brother’s bar mitzvah would be coming around the bend in a few short years, my mother came to me privately when the time for my own bat mitzvah was approaching and asked me if I really wanted one.

I didn’t need a flash card to know what the right answer to that was. 

If I agreed to take one for the team, my mom promised they would throw me a lavish Sweet 16 party when the time came instead. 

I’m afraid you’ll have to wait for another d’var to find out how that went.

Back to Pinchas, which brings together four seemingly disparate stories with one common theme having to do with legacy. For me, this parsha speaks to two profound concepts: the legacies we hope to pass along to those who survive us, and the ways in which all of us leave unfinished business in our wake.

The first example of legacy in this parsha is the legacy granted by God to Pinchas, the grandson of Mose’s elder brother Aaron, after he slays a high-ranking Israelite official and the Midianite princess with whom he was publicly consorting. 

Pinchas kills them both, and by this act, he simultaneously atones for and halts a period of rampant idol worship and the terrible plague that arose in the wake of it

In gratitude, God grants Pinchas a covenant of peace, and the eternal covenant of kehunah for his zeal in atoning for the children of Israel.  In doing so, he elevates Pinchas - along with all his descendants to the role of priest.

Before that moment, only Aaron and his descendants where designated by God as Kohanim.  By blessing Pinchas in this way, God extends the number of those who will inherit the honor and weight of a priestly connection to the divine.  

This is special legacy has continued to be passed down through the millennia from fathers to sons to this very day, indeed to this very room in which we sit.

The second legacy noted in this parsha is the one that results when God commands Moses to undertake yet another census, the aim of which will be to allocate future shares of the promised land in perpetuity in proportion to the total number of men aged 20 and older in each of their fathers’ tribes.

While all this counting and divvying is taking place, the action moves to a third story related to legacy in the parsha – one that marks something of radical step for its time, in which the five orphaned daughters of Tzelophehad realize that in the wake of their father’s death, they have no way to claim their own fair share of the inherited wealth that property ownership would confer upon the men of their generation when they reach the promised land. 


At this time, women without brothers were excluded from inheriting property when their father died, a system that continues in many places in the world where women still struggle to be counted as equals. We can also see its echoes in the racist practices of redlining that not only denied certain categories of citizens the right to own their own homes but the chance to build and pass on the wealth that such home ownership could generate for their descendants. 


At the time of Moses, women were effectively prevented from inheriting their own family land, with all that implied for their own financial autonomy and freedom to enter into marriage agreements. These five brave women stood before Moses, Eleazer and the chieftains at the Tent of Meeting, and basically asked to be counted. 


Moses brought their case before God who promptly agreed that Tzelophehad's daughters have “indeed spoken justly” and instructed Moses that in future, “If a man dies and has no son, you shall transfer his inheritance to his daughter.”


This brings us to the fourth and for me the most powerful example of legacy in the parsha as the people draw close to the Promised Land, in which God abruptly informs Moses he will not be allowed to enter.  The reason for this, we learn earlier, is that after the death of Moses’ older sister Miriam and the disappearance of Miriam’s well that had quenched the thirst of the Hebrew people throughout their wanderings in the desert, God instructed Moses to gather all the people crying out for water and bring forth water as he had done once before, this time by speaking to the rock.  Instead, Moses grows angry at the people for their ingratitude and hits the rock with his staff in frustration, unleashing not only water - but God’s ire.  Clearly, this was not the demonstration of a faith that God had in mind, and he makes Moses take the fall for it.

When we reflect on all that Moses experienced in one lifetime, it is hard to fathom what emotions must have passed through him on hearing that in one moment of anger he had forfeited his long-sought dream of entering the land of milk and honey.

That after a life that began with floating up to Pharoah’s daughter in a reed basket, being raised among royalty only to flee for his life after killing an Egyptian soldier he saw beating an enslaved fellow Jew, settling elsewhere to create a family for 40 years, speaking to God via a burning bush that he needs to prepare for the Exodus from Egypt, after repeated pleadings with Pharoah, after frogs, lice, vermin, etc, after the parting of the Red Sea and getting to the other side, after reminding people again and again that, unlike toilet paper, the supply chain of manna is infinite, so there is no need to hoard it, after carrying down Tablets 1.0, only to be greeted by the sight of a Golden Calf, and going back for Tablets 2.0, after beating back hordes of poisonous snakes with his own healing snake that becomes a symbol of healing to this day, and after responding again and again to the people’s seemingly endless doubts, misgivings and complaints, after all of this ardor and tzuris, it seems hard to conceive that Moses himself would be granted nothing more than a sneak peek from the top of Mount Abarim at the legacy others would inherit by dint of all his efforts on their behalf. 

Of all the people we meet in the Torah, Moses has the most direct, intimate experience with the Divine Presence across his long lifetime. He never serves as king.  Although he is the youngest in his family, I see him as the ultimate middle child between God and the people Israel and a skillful cajoler of both. He is also a prophet, a teacher and a devoted leader - of followers who do not always follow, who are mostly loyal, until they are not.

There are so many lessons to his legacy, we can barely count them.  And yet after everything he had done, after running the final lap of a grueling 40-year marathon of Biblical proportions, Moses suddenly learns - not only will he be prevented from crossing the finish line, but he won’t even live to set foot on the other side of it.  Instead, he will soon be gathered up with his siblings in the world to come and buried by God in an unmarked grave.

Moses later begs God in vain to give him a second chance to experience the “good land on the other side of the Jordan” when this same moment is recapitulated in Deuteronomy. But in this earlier parsha, when he is confronted with the chilling finality of God’s words, to his credit, he doesn’t hesitate.  He immediately opts to take one for the team.  His heart steps right up -- yet again -- to a place of compassion for his people, to urging God to replace him in a timely fashion, lest the people wander about like sheep without a shepherd.  And it is Joshua who will step into his shoes, rather than either of his own two sons. 

Beyond the themes of legacy, this parsha also speaks to two notions of time.  One is cyclical and the other linear.  The Jewish calendar binds us to countless cycles of recurring days and prayers rejoicing in everything from waking up in the morning to vanquishing our ancient enemies, days for grieving the loss of a loved one and for atoning for the prior year’s transgressions. Days in which we savor the miracle of each returning season of planting, flourishing and harvesting. 

We reconnect with all these recurring touchstones throughout the year like those cylindrical prayer wheels that hang in Tibetan monasteries that the monks reach out and spin as they pass while reciting their prayers.  Around and around we go through Rosh Hashana to Purim to Pesach to Shavuous and back.

But Mose’s life was a linear story.  For Moses, time stretched out like a Torah scroll that would only be unrolled – and never wound back to the beginning and repeated anew - except by all of us who inherited his legacy.

And tragically, for me at least, I feel we are witnessing in this present moment a foreshadowing of an age of non-recurrence that is unfolding before our very eyes, the legacy of humanity’s profound and shameful degradation and dismantling of the living web of land, sea and sky, which is already bringing an end to certain familiar cycles of migrations and seasons that our planet has witnessed over eons.

In the face of obvious signs of glacial melt and mass species extinction, we can no longer delude ourselves that the natural cycles and rhythms of recurrence we once relied upon as children will continue in our lifetimes. 

And here is where I’d like to take a big step sideways for a moment and take you on an imaginative journey by way of the ancient book of divination, the I Ching, the Chinese Book of Change, that some say dates back more than 5000 years, the source of which is said to be a divine oracle.  It is a book that fascinated the psychotherapist Carl Jung throughout his life. It is intended to be used as way of characterizing the essential nature of this very moment in time in which the person consulting it finds themselves. Consulting the I Ching can yield one or more of 64 possible responses or hexagrams.  Each has a name.  Interestingly Number 63 is called “After the End,” but the very last chapter, Number 64 is called “Before the End.”

I was struck recently by how closely the language of “Before the End” mirrors the literal and psychological moment of Moses reaching Mount Abarim and resonates powerfully with how we understand ourselves as we approach the completion of a long sought goal. 

I ask your indulgence in letting me read this passage and ask you to imagine Moses standing reading this to himself:


“The accomplishment of a goal is in sight. It appears that long-impending matters may be brought to fruition with an acceptable amount of effort. Increasing clarity surrounds the meaning of situations once thought to be obscure. At the time of BEFORE THE END there is great promise for the future. A unique and sage viewpoint is present in human affairs. Order can be brought to chaotic situations.

“Because you are now unusually familiar with the elements involved in the object of your inquiry, you can evaluate and arrange them in whatever way necessary to achieve your aim. It should be a relatively simple matter to bring together groups of people in social or public-minded situations. By penetrating the psyche of each individual involved, you can arrange to gratify their needs within the group mechanism and thereby gain their co-operation.

“Yet, it would be a mistake to imagine that by achieving your aim you will bring matters to a close, that good judgment and order will prevail.

“The time BEFORE THE END can be compared to a lengthy trek over a high mountain. At some point, before reaching the peak, you can see in detail exactly how much farther you must travel.

“You will know what is involved in reaching the top because of your experience in the climb so far. However, when you do reach the peak, which has been in your sight for many long days of effort, you will have done only that.

“You will have acquired little information and no experience whatsoever about descending the other side. To rush up and over the top in an overly confident manner could bring disaster.

“In this passage The Book of Change warns at some length, of the dangers of proceeding without caution immediately BEFORE THE END. You must prepare yourself with wariness and reserve. The coming situation will be strange to you in every way, unlike any that you have experienced. In the near future you will not be able to draw upon the wealth of your acquired experience, for in many ways the time will be nothing short of a rebirth. The idea of rebirth here is a key to the meaning of the I Ching as a whole. The book ends with a new beginning, cycling back to the first hexagram, CREATIVE POWER, forever and ever into eternity.”  [Source:  The I Ching Workbook by R.L. Wing, December 19, 1979]

In this parsha, we stand as witnesses with Moses as he reaches both the pinnacle of his life and its end, calling us to imagine how we might feel if we stood in his shoes on Mount Abarim. The word Abarim means “passage.”  Is this moment a tragedy or a passage to a new era?  

Or as Mitch Albom, author of Tuesdays with Morrie, might say “All endings are also beginnings. We just don't know it at the time.”

My questions for you:

1.     How do you yourself feel about the legacy of Moses and the way his journey ends?  Do you see it as tragic, as appropriate, as a necessary evil or as creating space for a rebirth?


2.     How much of your own identity and life pursuit is wrapped up in what you hope to leave behind as a legacy?


3.     In what ways, if any, have you prepared yourself for the massive changes in our environmental, political, and economic lives that signal things may never cycle back in our lifetimes to where they were before?

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