Sunday, July 20, 2008

Pinhas (Mitzvot)

For more teachings on the parashah, see the archives to this blog at July 2006.

“… A Man over the Congregation”

The central mitzvot appearing in this parashah are not applicable today. Rather, they are either specific commands related to the situation of preparing to enter the Land (as famously explained by the Sefat Emet; see below) or to the service in the Temple. Following a repeated census of those alive at the end of forty years of wandering, the portion focuses upon three central topics: (1) the division of the land among the tribes, with a side discussion of inheritance by women following from the special case of the daughters of Zelophehad; (2) the appointment of a new leader to succeed Moses; (3) the daily and occasional sacrifices in the Temple (temidim ve-musafim) to be offered once they enter the Land. These, inter alia, form the basis for our daily and weekly liturgical cycle (for a discussion of the tension between fixity and kavvanah, and between the public and private aspects of worship, see what I wrote earlier this year, HY IX: Hayyei Sarah).

I will focus here upon the issue of leadership. We are today suffering through a nadir in leadership in Israel and, some would say, in the Jewish world generally. There is no need to waste words on the scandal of political leadership, which have more than once over the past two years led me to wish they would at least have the integrity and sense of shame of Richard Nixon (!). But our Rabbinic leadership, too, seems mediocre, caught in hyper-conservatism and halakhic rigidity, and lacking in any broad vision. (Incidentally, the division between “spiritual and “secular-political” leaderhsip is foreign to the Torah as such: Moshe Rabbenu was clearly both; later there was a clear split between prophet and king.)

But perhaps this is a subjective perception. When a person is young, the leaders of society always seem larger than life; as one matures and reaches middle age, and the leaders belong to one’s own generation or are even younger (Obama looks practically like a Bar Mitzvah bokhur!), they are seen as ordinary people, with clay feet. All one can hope for is that mima’amakim, from the depths of corruption and mediocrity, we may find the energies as a society to rise upwards and find sources of inner renewal. (It is said that the sons of Korah were uniquely qualified to be singers in the Temple because they had, quite literally, plunged the depths.)

To turn to our text: there is no commandment to appoint a leader but, to the contrary, it is Moses who addresses God “commanding” Him, in the imperative, to appoint a leader (Num 27:15-23). This section is divided into two main parts: the description of the desired leader, and the actual process of appointment.

“May the Lord appoint a man over the congregation—איש על העדה—who will go out before them and come before them; who will bring them out and bring them in.” Why the duplication? Perhaps these phrases are intended to suggest that the leader is both a model to be emulated by others, a figure who himself goes out and does whatever needs to be done (like officers in the Israeli Army, whose motto is Aharay—“After me!”), as well as a “mover and shaker” of others. He knows how to perform the actual cajoling, coaxing, persuasion to get the people to do whatever is needed at the time: “who takes them out and brings them in.” He is not only himself a paradigm, a sterling example, but he also knows how to be a nudnik!

“That the congregation of the Lord not be like sheep without a shepherd.” Sheep are dumb animals, who easily wander off and get lost. They evidently have no innate herding instinct. That’s why shepherds are so important, and that is why they use sheepdogs, who run alongside the flock to keep them in line. Though they easily stray, they are also easily frightened and brought back in line.

Following this overall vision, the Torah describes the process of the leader’s (here: Joshua’s) actual appointment. This involves three phases: (1) “take a man in whom there is spirit”—that is, the person must have the basic qualities needed for leadership in himself to begin with; he cannot be anyone off the street. He must have, not only ethical qualities, as well as intellect and knowledge, but also a certain spiritual quality, a connection to the transcendent. (2) “and place your hands upon him”: that is, the retiring (or, in this case, soon-to-die) leader publicly conveys his own authority upon the new man. Continuity is important: the people have learned to trust the old leader, and need this affirmation from him that the new one is also trustworthy. And, in Jewish life, tradition as such is a major value. (3) ונתת מהודך עליו, “place your glory upon him.” The word hod may be translated as radiance, beauty, glory, but I would translate it as “charisma.” Even beyond wisdom, skill and understanding of what the people need, and even beyond “spirit,” a leader must have charisma—that mysterious quality which makes people listen to him. A person may be the most brilliant expert in political theory, but if he is a Casper Milquetoast who fails to inspire others, his leadership is valueless. Moshe Rabbenu, despite being “heavy of speech,” and notwithstanding his numerous tiffs with the people, was both a beloved and a strong leader who gradually taught the people how to become what they needed to be.

How sad it is to read such things in our present predicament! I hope readers will indulge me if I engage in a litany about our present leadership: If there had only been the Second Lebanon War, with its colossal misjudgments: Dayenu, we would have said “Enough!” If it were only that he openly displayed contempt towards, the Winograd Commission (which he himself ordered!), we would have said “Enough!” If there had been no war, but only Talansky’s envelopes stuffed with cash, and the free flights and hotel rooms and sweetheart real estate deals and all the other scandals and corruptions, we would have said “Enough!” If there had been neither of those, but only the recent hostage exchange, which was a great psychological victory for our enemies, and can only encourage them to kidnap more soldiers, and hold out for ever higher ransoms, making us, in the words of the long Tahanun we said the day after the deal, “we have been a ridicule and laughingstock among the nations”—we would say “Enough!” How much more so that he has done all these things, that we must shout from the rooftops “Enough!! Go home! Smoke your cigars and pay your own way! Stop taking stupid risks with the precious treasure of the entire Jewish people in our day, the Third House!”

A Watershed: From Divine Providence to Earthly Life

In looking through my past files for a certain teaching, I discovered that five years ago, when I was writing about Hasidism, I had almost fully prepared one of my favorite teachings, a certain Sefat Emet on this week’s parashah, but never sent it out. I am now rectifying this oversight.

Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger, explains this week’s portion and its seemingly diverse and unconnected subjects, as a watershed chapter, one making a fundamental change in the pattern of Israel’s relationship to God, to the physical world, and to the various challenges presented by life. Whereas until this point the life of the Israelites in the desert was under miraculous, transcendent Providence, it now turned to a more down-to-earth, reality bound path, based more upon human initiative. The previous generation had been sustained through miracles, all of their physical needs being provided directly by Heaven: they ate manna, drank water from a miraculous well, their shoes and clothing did not wear down, etc. Moreover, they heard the Divine voice and their leader, Moses, received directives from God face to face. The new generation, born in the desert, is faced with new challenges. Sefat Emet, Pinhas, 5640, s.v. semikhut parshiyot:

[What is the reason for] the contiguity among these passages: the priesthood of Pinhas [Num 25:12-13], the enmity towards the Midianites [25:17], the census [26:1-51], and the [announcing of] the death of Moses Our Teacher [27:12-23]? At this point there began a different manner of behavior, [that of] of the generation which was to enter the Land. Hence there was a new census [i.e., in place of that in Numbers 1:1-47]. Just as in the generation of the desert they were given Aaron the priest, so in this generation there was the priesthood of Pinhas. For previously they had been on a supernal level, above nature, under the power of Moses our Teacher, and therefore the priesthood of Aaron was a gift from heaven. But Pinhas received his priesthood by right, because it was in accordance with the changing nature of the generation: for now things began to be according to human service, and awakening from below, in the aspect of Oral Torah. And this itself was the matter of “zealots strike him” [i.e., the phrase used by Hazal to explain why Pinhas killed the fornicating couple without a trial]. For he [i.e., Zimri] was not subject to the death penalty by the Sanhedrin, for according to law one could not put him to death, but in the case of one who is zealous for the Lord, the law is different, allowing one to kill him—and this is the law of the Torah.

(NB: this concept, known as קנאים פוגעים בו, is very difficult both legally and ethically; for a discussion, see Pinhas [Torah])

We thus find that the children of Israel, by means of their own deeds, change all of the conduct of the Torah. And this is the matter of Oral Torah: that all was given at Sinai, but the children of Israelite needed to realize it, to take it from a state of potential to one of actuality. And that is why Moses Our Teacher did not kill Zimri, but only Pinhas did so: not that Moses was inferior to him, but that Pinhas came and did that which was “his.” For in truth, because the generation of Moses our teacher was on a very sublime level, their behavior was not in accordance with human powers, but only through supernal guidance. For on such a high level as that, the intellect and power of comprehension of human beings were negated. And thereafter, when the generations declined, the arousal from below was recognized and needed, as we said, in the same way as the light of the moon is nullified in respect to the sun.

Therefore it is written “Hate the Midianites.” That is, you need to detest them: that is, the smiting of the Midianites took place through the hatred of the Israelites. And this is what we wrote, that the conduct of things began to be according to the arousal from the lower realms, but the earlier battles only took place through the miracles of the Creator alone. And indeed, it is written “[the Lord shall wage war for you] and you shall be silent” [Exod 14:14]. [And one might say that this is also the significance of, “And Moses and Eleazar spoke” [Num 26:3]—that is, that you need to do the counting; that is, that the census took place by means of an arousal of their own souls, as above.]

This week’s parashah gives several signs of the transition: the appointment of Joshua as the successor to Moses; the second census of the people, marking the end of the 38 years (which, as we mentioned in our introduction to Bamidbar, is the second major watershed in the Book of Numbers); and the rules concerning the fixed animal sacrifices, establishing a regular form of worship—temidim kedsidram umusafim kehilkhatam. (This in turn relates to another issue: the entire problematic in religion of fixity vs. emotion. Was this the beginning of the transition from the spontaneous, charismatic prophetic leader to that of the priest, as described in Ahad Haam’s essay on “Prophet and Priest”?)

Two incidents in the chapter are particularly characteristic. We have already noted how Pinhas’s act was marked by human moral initiative. But no less interesting is the story of the daughters of Zelophehad, who approached Moses to ask what would happen to their father’s inheritance, seeing as how he had died leaving only daughters. A mundane concern—but one of great importance, insofar as it concerns the application of principles of equity and fairness to an immediate, practical situation.

There seems to be an interesting dialectic here: the generation of the desert were in some sense closer to God, seeing with their own eyes the constant miracles He performed for them; but their existence was also more child-like, bereft of the responsibility and choices that typify adult life. Some Hasidic teachers, following some Midrashic motifs, see the desert period as an almost Edenic existence (or, for that matter, Jeremiah 2:2: “I remember for you the devotion of your youth, your bridal love, following Me in the wilderness, in an unsown land”). In any event, the entrance into Eretz Yisrael, which is tantamount to “real life,” demands leaving the womb.

One may connect this with a larger tension within religious life, and in life generally: that of quietism vs. activism. Is the truly authentic religious posture that of sitting quietly, waiting upon God, doing what one has to do, but with a certain inner sense of dependence, of being a mere vessel or channel of God acting through one? Or is it that of the active person, always striving to do more, judging himself against the yardstick of his ideal, constantly seeking to fill his life with more positive contents: more Torah, more kavanah (inner devotion), more creativity, more deeds of kindness towards others? Sefat Emet even connects this with halakhic creativity and innovation, by means of Torah shebe’al peh, in which the element of human understanding and input play a crucial role. He seems to be playing the groundwork here for a modern theology, even one that is radically so.

Christian mystics may have a more highly developed language for this sort of thing—they speak of via activa and via passiva, Martha and Mary, etc.—but it is certainly a central theme in Jewish thought, in Hasidism and elsewhere. (See on this the opening chapters of Rivka Schatz-Uffenheimer’s Hasidism as Mysticism [Jerusalem, 19883; English: Jerusalem-Princeton, 1993, my translation], as well as J. G. Weiss’ pioneering article on ”Via Passiva in Hasidism,” Journal of Jewish Studies 40 [1960], 137-155).

Judaism speaks of this problem more in terms of the debate between Rabbi Yishmael and Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai (Berakhot 35b). The former insisted that one must live a normal life, engaging in worldly activities: “and you shall gather your grain.” The latter protests that, “if a person sows at the time of sowing, plows at the time of plowing and reaps at the time of reaping,” when will he have any time left to devote himself to Torah? Rather, when Jews fulfill the will of the Almighty, “their work is done for them by others.” In brief, work and other worldly activities are a necessary evil, to be avoided if at all possible. This is a perennial debate: Are spirituality and worldliness in fundamental conflict with one another, or can they be reconciled? Or, in William James memorable phrase, is one’s religion “world-affirming” vs. “world denying”? This is, of course the crux of the conflict today between Haredi Ultra-Orthodoxy, which fosters a cloistered, life-long-study-centered pietism, and other schools in religious Jewry, who championed the combination of Torah ve-Avodah or Torah im derekh eretz, Torah combined with labor and with worldly involvement.

Due to time constraints, I cannot write about Pirkei Avot this week. I will merely suggest that readers study and reflect on the mishnah of the “48 ways” (6.5), which are really prerequisites, seemingly indirect, for becoming a “Torah personality.” One should also take special note of this week’s haftarah, which is only read infrequently, and which is particularly interesting.


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