Pinchas: Priest and Prophet

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Pinchas

We’ve just entered the “Three Weeks” between the 17th of the Hebrew month of Tammuz and the
9th of the month of Av; these three weeks are a sad and penitential
period, culminating in the 9th of Av [Tisha B’Av], a memorial day of
fasting for the disasters of Jewish history.

As a way of evoking reflection in this semi-mourning period, the three
haftarot of the “Three Weeks” are prophetic texts which rebuke the
Israelites and call them to account for their misdeeds. This week’s
haftarah is from the book of Yirmiyahu, or Jeremiah, and comprises the
opening passages of the book, in which the prophet receives his
commission to preach difficult words to his people.

Like Moshe, Yirmiyahu doesn’t feel qualified to speak as a prophet,
but is given two visions: the branch of an almond tree and a “steaming
pot,” to impress upon him the importance and meaning of his task.
(Jer. 1:11-14) The “steaming pot tipped away from the north” seems to
symbolize the trouble that will come from the north, in the form of
invading armies (that’s not the only interpretation, but we’ll leave
further discussion for another day), but why would the prophet be
given the vision of an almond branch?

Let’s see the verse in context:

” The Lord put out His hand and touched my mouth, and the Lord said to me:

‘Herewith I put My words into your mouth.
See, I appoint you this day
Over nations and kingdoms:
To uproot and to pull down,
To destroy and to overthrow,
To build and to plant.’

The word of the Lord came to me: ‘What do you see, Jeremiah?’ I
replied: ‘I see a branch of an almond tree.’

The Lord said to me:
‘You have seen right,
For I am watchful to bring My word to pass.’ ” (Jer 1:9-12)

In Hebrew, the almond is “shaked,” which seems to be a pun on the word
for “watchful” (shoked) in the following verse. So on the most basic
level, the vision of the almond branch (or rod) is a kind of visual
metaphor: the prophet sees the branch and is reassured that God will
be “watchful,” that is, reliable or trustworthy, to bring about
accountability to the people.

However, this wouldn’t be the first time the rod of an almond tree has
appeared as an important symbol: recall Bamidbar/Numbers 17, where
Aharon’s staff blossomed with almonds as a sign that God had picked
him to become the priest. Not only that, but the Jewish Study Bible (a
great resource- go get it!) has a note in which we learn that
archaeologists found a pomegranate-shaped cap to a staff with an
inscription which indicated that it belonged to priests or Levites,
serving in the Temple. So with that piece of evidence, and the story
from Numbers, we might assume that the vision of the almond staff is a
way of signifying priestly authority, which in turn makes sense
because Yirmiyahu himself was a priest.

So maybe the vision of the almond staff is a way of telling the
prophet that his role as priest can no longer be merely ritual, but
must also include the moral message of repentance and return. Hirsch
points out that the word for staff or rod, “makel,” connotes not only
authority but also a means of correction or punishment, as when Bilaam
took his rod to strike his donkey. (Bamidbar 22:27)

Here’s how I put these interpretations together: as a priest,
Yirmiyahu was used to bringing people into the Divine Presence with
rituals and offerings. As prophet, however, he need to bring people
close with words of rebuke and a larger moral vision. The prophecy of
the almond rod means: you have just as much authority with your words
as you would with your rituals, as long as your words come from a
spiritual vision such that their true purpose is bring people back to
their Source.

Seen this way, the almond branch is itself a symbol of the richness of
a religious journey, which at times is contemplative or celebratory,
connecting with God in the manner of our ancestors and bringing great
beauty and depth to our everyday experience. Yet sometimes
spirituality requires great introspection, a “chesbon nefesh,” or
soul-accounting, in which we are called to examine ourselves and our
deeds and get back on the path if we’ve strayed. Both are good, and
neither is the sole component of spiritual growth. The vision of the
almond rod conveys to the prophet that sometimes a priest has to be a
prophet- sometimes we need deep rituals and sometimes we need bracing
words to connect to our Source.

Shabbat Shalom,


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