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Pinchas – the eponymous hero or anti-hero of this week’s sidra – appears only at its beginning. He is promised a covenant of peace and a covenant of everlasting priesthood because of his zealousness for God. However, the sidra mainly concerns itself with details of the names of those in each tribe of Israel, the inheritance to be given to the daughters of Zelophechad and ends with a description of what sacrifices were made on each festival, Sabbath and new moon.

Another voice

Pinchas by Elkan Levy :: 5768

Elkan D Levy, Director of the Office of Small Communities and past President of the United Synagogue, is Chair of the Committee that recently produced the new Singer's Prayer Book. He is well-known as a dynamic lecturer who is deeply interested in British Jewry, its past and its future.

This week's Parasha ostensibly shows the beneficial effects of decisive action. Moses has been in power for years. Increasingly weary of the constant battle to maintain standards, he appears overcome by an apparent inability to remove the underlying respect for idolatry that still permeates the attitudes of the people whom he had led out of Egypt.

Yet another threat to the integrity of the people and its holy destiny emerges from the Moabite women. Political correctness probably suggested that the Moabites were a good thing. 'It is' the politically-correct would have said 'impossible to sustain ourselves as an independent nation.' Others would have added 'what's wrong with becoming friendly with the surrounding peoples? We can probably get on with them, it might be a lot easier to settle down here rather than go on trailing through the wilderness -- perhaps Moses has actually lost his way? In any case, the girls are very good-looking.'

Moses and the elders seem paralysed by indecision and by the horror of what is occurring. Weeping and wailing they stand at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting. Just then, flaunting themselves in front of the leaders of the nation, a young Jewish prince and his Midianite girlfriend saunter past, obviously intent on offending accepted morality.

Infuriated by what he sees and in a red rage, Pinchas seizes a spear, follows the couple into the tent and executes summary justice by killing them both.

G-d is delighted. Giving the young man his full and extended patronymic, "Pinchas ben Elazar ben Aharon Hacohen" - he is no longer a minor member of the priesthood -- he is promised an everlasting pact of peace, and incidentally has saved the rest of the nation from destruction.

One can understand that this was not necessarily a universal view. 'What did he have to do that for?' some would have said. 'He was a nice boy, was Zimri, and his family contributed very generously to the building of the Tabernacle. She seemed a very nice person, pretty girl, perhaps she might have made something of him.'

The action that Pinchas took raises problems. Clearly the attitudes of his detractors are wrong; had the Children of Israel gone down the path of Midianite integration, there would be no Children of Israel within a generation or so. Decisive action was called for, even though (as the Rabbis themselves acknowledge) it was illegal.

But the primary lesson of the Torah is the importance of law. Freedom without law is mere licence, it reduces civilisation to the law of the jungle. Judaism is predicated on the importance of law, both for Jews and non-Jews.

The truth is that the example given by Pinchas is not totally admirable. He got away with it; most of us don't, and unfettered zealotry rarely acts in the general good. Ultimately the power of Jewish civilisation rests on the sanctity of law and the acceptability of legal decisions, rather than the dramatic but possibly destructive gesture.


More by Elkan Levy

Another voice by Shoshana Bloom

Shoshana is a passionate Limmudnik and is Co-Chair of this year’s Limmud Conference and previously co-chaired the 2005 Conference. Professionally she works for Norwood as their head of Jewish Culture developing informal Jewish education programmes for people with learning disabilities and supporting them to become proud, active and contributing members of the Jewish community. She is also a member of the ROI community.

In this parsha we are introduced to Machlah, Noah, Chaglah, Milchah and Tirzah – Zelophechad's daughters. At that time the inheritance laws were such that property could only be passed from father to son. If there were no sons, then the chain was broken. Zelophechad's daughters spoke up and approached Moshe to make him aware that by virtue of their gender, they stood to lose everything as a direct consequence of the law in place. Moshe brought their plight before G-d and G-d decreed that in the case of a father having no sons, then his property should be transferred to his daughters – a clear example of the law being changed to protect those affected by a case of social and legal injustice.

This is an important lesson for us today. Once the plight of the vulnerable has been brought our attention we should feel compelled to listen and to help make a difference. We must ensure that we protect those in society who are vulnerable or marginalised or whose voices are not always heard. This sense of compassion, justice and a desire to protect those who are at risk should form an important basis for our society if we wish to create a better world for all. At a time when asylum seekers from Darfur and Zimbabwe to name but two countries are at genuine risk of being sent back to the places from which they fled in terror, we need to ask ourselves – what can we do to help protect them? Zelophechad's daughters were able to present their own case – others are not so fortunate and we need to ensure that we speak up on behalf of those who would otherwise not be heard.


More by Shoshana Bloom

Other Divrei Torah on Pinchas

  • 5766 (Stewart Brookes)
  • 5766 (Robert Owen)
  • 5767 (Miriam Berger)
  • 5769 (Miriam Berger)
  • 5769 (Irit Burkeman)
  • 5770 (Marcelo Bendahan)
  • 5770 (Taste of Limmud Team)
  • 5771 (Paul Forgasz)
  • 5771 (Taste of Limmud Team)
  • 5772 (David Brown)
  • 5772 (Paul Turner)
  • 5773 (Shoshana Boyd Gelfand)
  • 5774 (Albert Ringer)
  • 5774 (Lindsey Taylor-Guthartz)