Pinchas: Additional Offerings

Copyright 2010 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Pinchas

In the Torah portion Pinchas, we begin with an accounting of families and tribes, continue with the changes demanded by the daughters of Zelophechad, set the stage for Joshua to succeed Moshe, and end with many laws regarding many of the ancient offerings: Shabbat, Rosh Chodesh, and the yearly holidays.

Greetings at the end of a beautiful week!

The end of this week’s Portion is a long list of special offerings- bulls, lambs, rams, wine and flour- made in the Mishkan, or portable Sanctuary, daily and on special occasions. The direct connection with our prayer service is in the musaf, or additional prayer, recited on Shabbat and the holidays. In the musaf prayer, we take the text describing the ancient offerings and recite it as if the words were the offerings themselves. Thus, on Shabbat, the core of the musaf prayer is the law of the Shabbat service in the Mishkan:

“On the sabbath day: two yearling lambs without blemish, together with two-tenths of a measure of choice flour with oil mixed in as a meal offering, and with the proper libation —  a burnt offering for every sabbath, in addition to the regular burnt offering and its libation.” (Bamidbar/Numbers 28:9-10)

When discussing musaf prayers, many commentaries bring a text from the prophet Hosea:  “Take with you words, and return unto the LORD; saying: ‘Forgive all iniquity, and accept that which is good; so will we render for bullocks the offering of our lips’ ” (Hosea 14:3)

This idea- that we offer words in place of agricultural sacrifices- allows us to have a direct historical and theological link to the ancient practices of our Biblical ancestors, and for many Jews, myself included, that sense of historical continuity is itself spiritually grounding and broadening. Other commentators say that the ancient offerings were expressions of gratitude for the blessings of the land, and while most of us may not have bulls and rams in our backyard, we are no less dependent on the blessings of the land than our ancestors were, and therefore no less obligated to cultivate an awareness of that interdependence with nature and express humble gratitude for it.

Yet musaf isn’t only about the past (our ancestor’s practice) and the present (our gratitude for our blessings.) It’s also about the future, since most traditional versions of the prayer include the hope that someday we will return to Jerusalem to once again make these offerings as before. Because of that, some prayerbooks omit, abridge or modify the musaf prayer; for example, the Conservative prayerbook Sim Shalom uses language of once again worshiping where our ancestors did, rather than how our ancestors did.

For me, the traditional language of restoring sacrificial offerings doesn’t pose a dire theological dilemma, because I understand the language of the prayerbook as poetic and evocative in its use of images. I don’t literally want to restore offerings of bulls and rams, but the image of doing so allows me to imagine that the pain and brokenness of two millennia in exile have been totally healed and our people fully renewed and made whole.

I experience musaf as a powerful expression of faith and hope, a theological commitment not to ancient offerings but to overcoming cynicism and despair. Reading the headlines, it’s often impossible to believe that someday Jerusalem will be a place of perfect peace and utter joy for all her children, yet that’s what musaf asks us to imagine. There is no hope without imagination, yet with hope and faith, the world will be made new again.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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