Patriarchal Reflections (5777/2017)

Torah’s stories reflect a patriarchy in which oldest biological son inherits all. But, in Torah’s funhouse mirror, younger sons and adopted sons find ways to take their share. How do they find their way? They watch women subvert gender expectations and copy the women’s strategies.

Younger sister Rachel struggles in her relationship with her sister Leah. Eventually, Rachel says: “I have wrestled with my sister and succeeded.” Soon Torah refers to the sisters as “Rachel and Leah,” hinting that Rachel heads the family. Her husband Jacob must have been listening. Just before he confronts his older brother, he has a vision of wrestling and succeeding.

The five daughters of Zelophechad have no brothers. One day, they petition to inherit their father’s land. How do they succeed? Calm demeanor, and divine consultation in front of witnesses. Later that day, adopted son Joshua inherits national leadership from a reluctant Moses. How do they manage the transition? With tools borrowed from the women: calm demeanor, and divine consultation in front of witnesses.

Yes, Torah reflects the patriarchy in its society. But intentionally not with a flattering image. And with a quiet resistance led by local women.


From Passion to Inner Peace (5773/2013)

Pinchas has an intense passion for God; so intense that he kills two people to protect the integrity of his religious tradition. It’s not a wartime situation; no legal proceeding takes place; and Pinchas offers no admonition, option or warning before he strikes. Moshe and the Israelite elders do not condone the action. Yet God speaks approvingly of Pinchas’ zeal and then adds, “I give him my covenant of peace.”

Rabbi Baruch Epstein (1860-1941) suggests that God approves not of the act but of the purity of Pinchas’ zeal. It’s not unusual to find people committing violence for political purposes, claiming to act in the name of God. But it is unusual to find someone like Pinchas, who is actually moved by spiritual passion. The catch? We humans cannot tell the difference; only God can.

If the act itself was not praiseworthy, then the “covenant of peace” is probably not a reward. Rabbi Naphtali Zvi Yehuda Berlin (1816-1893) says it’s a promise of protection from endless inner recrimination. Once the adrenaline rush of the zeal has subsided, and Pinchas reflects on his actions, he will find himself rocked with the turmoil of negative self-judgment. God promises tranquility at the end of the process.

All of us make mistakes. Often we believe passionately that our actions are motivated by the highest good. And sometimes we regret the actions, their consequences, and their effect on our own souls. At those times, perhaps we can take comfort in these two commentaries on the parsha. At times of great passion, we cannot truly discern whether our motivations are pure. When remorse sets in, we should know: after an honest process of self-reflection, inner peace will return.

Inspired by Nechama Leibowitz


Spiritual Guidance (5772/2012)

Haftarat Parshat Pinchas:

Everything is falling apart; the prophet Eliyahu believes he has failed. He hides in a mountain cave and prays for death. An angel feeds him; he gathers strength, and walks to Horeb (Sinai), the mountain of God.

A word of God comes to Eliyahu. “Why are you here, Eliyahu?” Eliyahu pours out his heart, “I was so zealous for YHWH, Lord of Hosts, but the Israelites left the covenant, destroyed your altars, and killed your prophets in battle. Only I’m left and they want to take my life.”

“Ah,” says God. “Go stand on the mountain in my presence.”

God passes by.  A huge wind splinters the moutain and shatters the rocks — but God is not in the wind. An earthquake comes — but God is not in the earthquake. A fire starts — but God is not in the fire.

A subtle sound of silence comes. Eliyahu buries his face in his cloak, and pours out his heart using the same words again…and this time he receives guidance.

Eliyahu’s story offers simple instructions to all of us who pray in times of trouble, times when events seem to strip away all we once relied on.

1. Eat, drink, sleep and make sure your physical strength is replenished.

2. Get out of town if you can, and go to a place you find holy.

3. When you get there, pray and reflect.

4. Recognize that answers may not come in a form you expect.

5. Let go of the anger and fear that shakes inside you.

6. Listen for the voice you hear as the emotions subside, and there you will find spiritual guidance.


Priesthood of Peace (5770/2010)

While serving as a security guard at the mishkan (sanctuary), Pinchas murderously defends its sacred boundaries. God seems to respond to the violence by giving Pinchas a promotion: a special brit shalom and brit kehunat olam a covenant of peace and an eternal covenant of priesthood. How can we, with a peacetime sense of Jewish ethics, understand God’s response?

Staying within the peshat (the simple narrative) of the story, perhaps God worries that Pinchas was doing his policing job a little too well. Perhaps God is saying, “Okay, Pinchas, you’re not really suited for security guard. How about we try priest?”

Moving to the level of derash (the moral of the story), perhaps the answer lies in a play on words. The name Pinchas can also be read as pen chas – lest you become angry. Perhaps the important message is not the fate of the character Pinchas, but the teaching that whenever we become angry, we need to remind ourselves of some of the basics of our Jewish covenant: we should be priests of peace in the world.

Finally, on the level of sode (hints to the Divine nature), perhaps the covenant of peace/priesthood is a reminder of the priests’ role as a channel for the priestly blessing. The priestly blessing says, yisah HaShem panav elecha v’yasem licha Shalom – May God lift the Divine face towards you and place upon you peace. Perhaps the face of God is the face of peace. When we allow ourselves to see this true face, we turn from violence to nonviolence.


How Shall We Read Torah? (5765/2005)

Shortly after the Israelites get in trouble for worshipping a Moabite God, Pinchas follows an Israelite man and a Midianite woman into a private place. Pinchas pierces them both with a spear and they die.  Moshe rewards Pinchas’ action by appointing Pinchas and his descendants to the priesthood forever.  How are we to understand this story?

Should we think of Torah as a historical record of Jewish political conflicts?  Perhaps later in Israelite history, a group of zealous isolationists made a claim to the priesthood.  Perhaps a scribe tried to write into the Torah a story justifying (or condemning) their claim.

Should we read Torah ironically?  Perhaps Moshe, aghast at Pinchas’ crime, tried to figure out the most graceful way to isolate Pinchas.  As a priest, Pinchas’ entire life would be subject to strict controls: where he pitched his tent, what he wore, what he ate, who he could marry, how and when he worked.

Should we read Torah as a tapestry of layered literary metaphors?  Perhaps the Torah is asking us to rethink what we mean by a “crime of passion.”  Perhaps there are connections between different kinds of piercing, different kinds of passionate love, birth and death, the conception of new life and the eternal chain of future descendants, religious office and social control.

Should we read the Torah as a reminder that there is no escape from difficult political and social questions?  In our time, the world is filled with isolationist religious zealots set against one another.  Many believe they will be rewarded for their violent acts.  Whether we want to or not, we take a stand on these issues by the way we vote, the way we pray, what we believe, and who we befriend.


  1. Your takes on Pinchas as are interesting and I really enjoy your writing….I think this one may be as simple as what meets the eye…the Jewish people were being threatened and Pinchas did was was needed to be done to save them…he took a big risk and Hashem gave him a promotion for it (even though he was already a Cohen)…sometimes the only way to avoid massive violence is the use of limited violence..yes, it can be unpalatable but still necessary. Killing is always disconcerting and uncomfortable, but it is not always a crime, it is not always murder; sometimes maybe we need to understand that the challenges given to us each day by Hashem are there for a particular reason, and while we have free choice over how to act, the results are always as Hashem wills it. In this case, Pinchas killed two people to protect millions

  2. Rick, thanks for this thoughtful comment. Point well taken; perhaps Pinchas made a discernment about how to apply principles of war and peace. Here is what makes the questions raised in this story more complex for me, though. Torah leaves it unclear exactly what Pinchas was protecting people from, though interpreters have certainly weighed it. Intermarriage leading to loss of identity and power? A deadly STD already ravaging the Midianites? A political plot using sex as a tool? Contamination of the mishkan — and thus loss of communal power — through encroachment by the impure?…are these acts at the fringes of war also acts of war?

  3. >>>
    Moshe and the Israelite elders do not condone the action.

    What? A few lines above the start of this week's parsha, God orders the killing of those who worshipped Baal Peor! And Moses transmits the messages to the leaders of the people.

    They didn't "condone" the action – they _ordered_ it!

    We spend a lot of time figuring out how to avoid the p'shat of texts like this.

    – Charles

    1. Charles, take another look. God asks Moshe. Moshe doesn’t do it but asks the elders. The elders start crying. No pshat avoidance committed.- L

  4. ” 4 The LORD said to Moses, “Arrest all the leaders of the people, and hang them up before the LORD in broad daylight, so that the fierce anger of the LORD may be turned away from Israel.”note 5 So Moses said to the judges of Israel, “Each of you must execute those of his men who were joined to Baal-peor.”
    6 Just then one of the Israelites came and brought to his brothers a Midianite woman in the plain view of Moses and of the whole community of the Israelites, while they were weeping at the entrance of the tent of meeting. 7 When Phinehas son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, saw it, he got up from among the assembly, took a javelin in his hand, 8 and went after the Israelite man into the tent and thrust through the Israelite man and into the woman’s abdomen. ”

    I suspect the Hebrew is less straightforward than this translation. We may be arguing over this question:

    . . . Did Pinchas know that God (through Moses) had commanded the killing of
    . . . the idol-worshipping Israelites, and was he fulfilling that command,
    . . . or did he kill Zimri and Cozbi because of his own passion for God?

    I don’t find either of those alternatives praiseworthy. But my mind has been warped by reading:

    “Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence, 3rd Edition (Comparative Studies in Religion and Society, Vol. 13) — Mark Juergensmeyer

    Your analysis is certainly more subtle. And the plague _did_ stop.
    . Charles

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