Parsha In Advance: Pinchas

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Pinchas

Today is a wondrous day!

Why?

Because I’m a week ahead in bringing you some Torah
commentary, that’s why. (Those who know me well know that I
recklessly laugh in the face of the strictest deadline.) Today
you’re getting next week’s Parsha study, and sometime next
week you’ll get two for the weeks ahead, while I’m travelling and
packing up.

With that, Pinchas! (The parsha read during the week of July 23.)
Pinchas is the name of a zealot who took the law in his own
hands and killed a couple whom he deemed to be defilers of
Israel’s morality- that happens at the end of parshat Balak. In
what seems to be a strange reward for an act of violence, at the
beginning of this week’s parsha God gives him a covenant of
peace and a share in the priesthood.

Then there is another census of the tribes, and a legal appeal of
sexist inheritance laws, brought by the five daughters of
Tzelophechad. (Say THAT ten times fast!) Moshe is told he will
die without entering the Land, and he authorizes Joshua to
succeed him. The portion ends with a review of the holidays and
their specific rituals in the Mishkan (portable Sanctuary.)

Perhaps the most poignant moment of the parsha occurs when
Moshe is told by God to ascend the mountain to view the Land-
the very Land he will not enter. In the midrash (rabbinic
commentaries), Moshe protests greatly, but in the Torah text
itself, he merely asks that God appoint a worthy successor:

“Moshe spoke to the Lord, saying: ‘Let the Lord, the God of
spirits of all flesh, appoint a man over the congregation, who will
go forth before them and come before them, who will lead them
out and bring them in, so that the congregation of the Lord will
not be like sheep without a shepherd.’ ” (Bamidbar/Numbers
27:15-17)

Many commentaries have pointed out Moshe’s selfless
benevolence: even at this moment of crushing personal
vulnerability and disappointment, he thinks of the community and
their need to have a brave and inspirational leader. Notice, too,
that Moshe addresses God in a most unusual manner: he calls
God “Elohai Haruchot l’kol basar,” or “God of the spirits of all
flesh.”

Usually, Moshe is rather direct in his speech, both to God and
human beings, so it seems out of character to have him speak
in rhetorical flourishes. Our teacher Rashi brings a lovely
explanation from an earlier midrash, an explanation which
connects Moshe’s special way of addressing God to the content
of his prayer for a worthy successor:

Here’s Rashi’s question and answer:

“Why is this [God of the spirits of all flesh] said? [Moshe] said to
God, ‘Master of the universe, the character of each person is
revealed to you, and no two are alike. Appoint over them a leader
who will tolerate each person according to his individual
character.’ ”

In this interpretation, “God of the spirit of all flesh” means that
God knows and appreciates the unique spirit of each individual,
and the leader of the people should do likewise.

That’s a beautiful prayer! Wouldn’t it be great if all of our
synagogues and schools and community programs were run by
people who had great love for the individuality of each person?
To put it another way, Rashi’s commentary contains a profound
truth: if we truly believe that each human being is in the Image of
God [to me, a metaphor for each life being part of the sacred
Unity of all life], then we must also believe that each person is
worthy of being known and respected as an individual, with their
own unique dignity and destiny.

I love Rashi’s teaching and all it implies, but maybe we can learn
a more basic lesson from the way Moshe called out to God.
Remember, by this point, Moshe has seen a lot of death and
sadness, from babies in Egypt to the wars and plagues along
the way, and even the deaths of his two siblings.

Now Moshe is being made unavoidably aware of his own
looming mortality, and he calls out to “God of the spirits of all
flesh.” In the awareness of death, Moshe calls out to God as the
animating principle of life itself. Precisely at the moment when
he is most aware of life’s fragility and preciousness, he names
God as the difference between life and death, being and
nothingness.

Perhaps Moshe is reassuring himself that the God of life will not
abandon him in death, or perhaps Moshe is thanking God for the
daily miracle of his human existence. In my own experience, just
at those times when I have been most aware of death, I have
also been most aware of the wondrousness of life. Life itself is
the ultimate miracle, and in reacting with awe and gratitude, we
recognize the sacred in all living things. Can any reaction other
than wonder and love be appropriate when contemplating “the
God of the spirits of all flesh?”

with wishes for a bountiful summer,

rnjl

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