The fearless courage of Pinchas was rewarded with his being initiated into the priesthood – G-d’s Covenant of Peace. Moshe and Elazar were commanded to take a census of the Bnai Yisroel. In accordance with the census, Moshe was instructed to divide the land between the Tribes. The Leviyim were counted, after which the daughters of Tzilophcad presented their petition to inherit the lands of their deceased father. G-d agreed to their request, and the basic laws of inheritance were detailed. G-d reiterated Moshe’s punishment, and Moshe requested G-d to appoint a successor. Yehoshua was chosen and inaugurated into the leadership of the nation. The Parsha concludes by detailing the standard daily, weekly, and monthly sacrifices, as well as the Korbanos for all the Yomim Tovim – holidays.
What is the connection between the various different topics of this week’s Parsha? How does Pinchas fit into the weekly lineup of, B’haloscha, Shlach, Korach, Chukas, and Balak?
Our generation is living through wondrous and sometimes horrendous times. The destruction of European Jewry; the establishment of the State of Israel; the emergence of the Jewish American community as the most influential since the destruction of the first Bais Hamikdash; the frightening rate of intermarriage and assimilation; the equally miraculous growth of the Baal Teshuvah movement; and the irrefutable proof that belief in the divinity of the Oral Law is our nations elixir of life.
It is not the performance of the Mitzvos or the belief in the Written Law that has guaranteed our spiritual and physical survival. It is our belief in the Oral Law and the divine obligation of the Rabbis to interpret and apply G-d’s law that has kept us relevant to each new generation. With each subsequent generation, the schism between those who believe in the divinity of the Oral Law, and those who do not believe in the divinity of the Oral Law, becomes more self-evident. Consider the following evidence. Those who assume the right of reinterpreting G-d’s Torah, have been forced to make greater and greater compromises in order to stem the hemorrhaging of their membership and youth. Those who struggle to understand G-d’s commandments, while accepting Chazal’s (Rabbis) interpretation of His Torah, continue to grow in number and strength as they maintain the standards of Jewish Law.
Starting with B’haloscha, the Torah focused on the relationship between Moshe and the Bnai Yisroel. For almost 40 years Moshe had been the Jews first and last court of appeal whenever they questioned, complained, or lost faith in G-d. As Yisro pointed out to Moshe, the phone never stopped ringing, there was a constant parade of people through his front door, and every single issue seemed to demand his personal attention. Yet, even though that generation saw Moshe, heard Moshe, and depended on Moshe, they nevertheless struggled with their need to trust Moshe. Believing in Moshe’s divine appointment as the only source of G-d’s law was as much a matter of faith for them as it is for us. Rav Hirsch explained that Sefer Bamidbar (Book of Numbers) details how the Jews realistically dealt with the ideals of their choseness. It therefore makes sense that the Torah, in Sefer Bamidbar, would emphasize the nation’s struggle with trusting Moshe and his explanation of G-d’s Mitzvos.
In B’haloscha the Torah confirmed Moshe’s unique status as the preeminent prophet. The manner in which the Sanhedrin (70 Elders) was appointed, as well as the incident with Miriam and Aharon, set for all time Moshe’s singular position as “our teacher.”
In Shelach, Moshe’s position as caretaker of the nation was established with the incident of the Spies, as he argued successfully to save his generation and give them a second chance of 40 years to live and learn about G-d and His Torah.
With Korach’s rebellion, Moshe’s position as “our teacher” was challenged and then divinely confirmed.
Parshas Chukas opened with the decree of the Red Heifer, which underscored the importance of accepting Moshe’s teachings as divine, regardless of rational, intellect, or understanding.
Parshas Balak contrasted Moshe’s humility with Billam’s egomania, and showed that a prophet’s true greatness is in delivering the word of G-d, as spoken. “…the word that G-d will put into my mouth, that I will have to speak (22:38). Regardless of a prophet’s personal preference and agenda, G-d won’t allow for His Torah to be perverted. In Billam’s case, G-d made sure that the words spoken were as He intended. In Moshe’s case, there was no reason to alter Moshe’s intentions. He was “the most trusted in all of G-d’s home.”
This week’s Parsha continues with the theme of the importance of the Oral Law, as taught to us by Moshe Rabbeinu. The Talmud tells us that Pinchas’ zealous act of bravery was motivated by the teachings of his teacher, Moshe. Moshe had taught that a public desecration of G-d’s law, such as the one with Zimri and the Midianite princess, permits an individual to take the law into his own hands. Pinchas accepted Moshe’s teachings as fact to the extent of taking the lives of Zimri and the Midianite woman, even though there was no such verse in the Torah allowing such an action! For his absolute faith in the teachings of Moshe, and his courage to act on that faith, Pinchas was rewarded to be among those who effected forgiveness for the Jewish people. He was gifted with inauguration into the priesthood – G-d’s Covenant of Peace.
Following the incident with Zimri and Pinchas, 24,000 people died. Moshe and Elazar were instructed to take a census of the nation in preparation for dividing up the land. The division was to be done by the hand of Moshe. Few things would have been as important to the generation inheriting the land as much as its division. The legend of the Promised Land had been a part of their personal history for almost 500 years. The last 40 years had been lived with the singular focus of going to Eretz Yisroel and inheriting the land. Each person envisioned his own homestead with fig tree and vineyard, white stone fence and family goat. The dreams of each family and their personal destinies were directly linked to their intended parcel of land. Through the land’s division, Moshe’s administration would be divinely linked to the personal evolution of each family.
The story of Tzilophcad’s daughters again underscores the concept of Torah She’Bal Peh – the Oral Law. In asking Moshe to rule on the eligibility for inheriting their father’s portion, the daughters of Tzilophcad agreed to accept Moshe’s ruling as divine. Whatever he would rule would become fact. In general, the laws of inheritance do not always follow logical dictate. Inheritances are fraught with the dangers of deep emotions, personal agenda, and expectations. Yet, the truly observant Jew accepts the rulings of the Torah, or those of a proper Beit Din, with absolute confidence that justice and truth has been done. This is why the Torah introduced the laws of inheritance with the story of Tzilophcad’s daughters.
Moshe’s punishment and Yehoshua’s appointment as his successor poignantly emphasizes the divinity of the Oral Law. Even Moshe had to be 100% confident in his own reception of G-d’s word. The slightest deviation from the accuracy of its transmission, in word or in deed, would question the divinity of its whole. Therefore, when Moshe hit rather than spoke to the rock, he undermined the divinity of his entire mission as the “most trusted in all of G-d’s home.” There had to be consequences. Yehoshua’s appointment as Moshe’s successor was the inevitable choice. Although there were others who were equally committed to following the word of G-d and transmitting it accurately to the next generation, Yehoshua was the one who had proven his absolute commitment to Moshe, “our teacher.” The future leaders of the Jews would be primarily responsible for transmitting the Torah of G-d as taught by Moshe Rabbeinu. They would have to protect the accuracy of the Oral Law with even greater measures than the Written Law. Therefore, the leader who followed Moshe’s administration would have to be the preeminent role model for all future leaders. He would have to proclaim, in word and in action, the words of Malachi, “Remember the Torah of My servant Moshe who I commanded at Mt. Sinai (Malachi 3:22). The quality of Yehoshua that set him apart from all others was his total trust and faith in the divinity of Moshe’s teachings. Therefore he was chosen in this week’s Parsha to succeed Moshe as leader and teacher.
The Parsha concludes with the listing of all the communal sacrifices throughout the year. Korbanos were the physical manifestation of our desire to totally subjugate our bodies and souls, to the will G-d. It was the symbolic, “drawing near to G-d.” which is the ideal that sacrifices and prayer are supposed to embody and engender. Our ability to subjugate our emotions and intellect to the dictates of the Oral Law is a reflection of our trust and faith in Moshe as the true servant of G-d. The Korbanos (and the daily Tefilos that temporarily replace them) confronted our natural reluctance to submit our minds and hearts to G-d or the dictates of the Oral Law.
As history has proven, the Oral Law is the lifeline that guarantees the future of our people. Faith in the divinity of Moshe’s teachings is fundamental to our existence. So it was when Moshe was alive, and so it has remained ever since.
Copyright © 1999 by Rabbi Aron Tendler and Project Genesis, Inc.
The author is Rabbi of Shaarey Zedek Congregation, Valley Village, CA.