Category Archives: Pinchas

The Eternal Man (Pinchas)

The Eternal Man (Pinchas)

Higher than the question of our duration is the question of our deserving. Immortality will come to such as are fit for it, and he would be a great soul in future must be a great soul now. -Ralph Waldo Emerson

Life is a constant struggle. It is ultimately a struggle between our body and our soul. It is a fight between what our body desires and what our soul aspires. Eventually, for all, the struggle ends. We die. Our body and our soul part ways. Our lifeless body returns to the ground and the dust from where it originated. Our soul, laden with the experience of a lifetime, returns to the spiritual, immortal realm. In the afterlife, the soul will have to give an accounting of its poor choices in the mortal realm, as well as benefit from the reward for the better choices it made in the land of the living.

However, according to Jewish tradition, there is at least one man who has yet to experience that exact fate; one may who hasn’t died. That is Pinchas, the hero and namesake of this week’s Torah reading.

As the Israelite nation is camped in the desert, the neighboring Midianite women seduce as many Israelite men as they can get their hands on. It is a premeditated attack by Midian, for they know that God will severely punish the Israelites for their immorality.

And that is what happens. God sends a plague that devastates the Israelite nation. At the height of the mass Israelite/Midianite dalliance, a prince of Israel, Zimri of the tribe of Simeon, publicly couples with Princess Kozbi of Midian.

At this point, Pinchas reacts. Though he knows it may cost him his life to attack a prince of Israel, Pinchas kills Zimri and Kozbi during their romantic act. Pinchas’ vigilantism stops the plague, which at that point had already killed 24,000 Israelites.

The Berdichever explains that Pinchas had reached a uniquely sublime level in the struggle of his body versus his soul. When Pinchas attacked Zimri and Kozbi, he knew he was putting himself in mortal danger. He had basically decided to give up his life to defend God and the people of Israel. His self-sacrifice, his willingness to nullify himself, his body, for the greater good, made his body ethereal in a certain sense. It made him not just spiritually immortal, but also physically immortal. Apparently, this was also the level of Adam in the Garden of Eden before he sinned. Had Adam not sinned, he would have lived forever.

According to tradition, Pinchas is still alive and among us, under the guise of Elijah the Prophet. Though we ritually welcome Elijah to every Pesach Seder and every Brit Mila, there are stories throughout our history of a mysterious man, a stranger, appearing without warning at important junctures and disappearing without notice once his task his done.

May we catch glimpses of eternity in our mortal world and touch infinity.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the 50th anniversary of man’s first landing on the moon.

Secret Jews (Pinchas)

Secret Jews (Pinchas)

If most of us remain ignorant of ourselves, it is because self-knowledge is painful, and we prefer the pleasures of illusion. -Aldous Huxley

During my years in Uruguay, I met multiple people who had discovered, some quite recently, that they had Jewish ancestors. Many of them were descendants of the crypto-Jews of Spain, that significant portion of the Jewish community that chose to convert to Christianity centuries ago, rather than be exiled from the kingdom of Ferdinand and Isabel. They kept their Jewish identity and practice secret, especially from agents of the Inquisition. I’ve heard estimates that as much as twenty percent of those of Spanish descent are of Jewish origin. We’re talking about tens of millions of souls.

However, that was not the only source of newfound Jews. There were a number whose grandparents had hidden any trace of their Jewishness during the Holocaust, that on their deathbeds, or even after, were revealed to be Jewish. My friend, Rabbi Avi Baumol, active in the Krakow Jewish community, confirms that there is a growing phenomenon of young Poles discovering their Jewish pedigree and returning to their roots.

Rabbeinu Bechaye on Numbers 26:51 (Pinchas) analyzes the census that Moses conducts at the end of the Jewish forty-year journey through the desert. He then calls upon the prophecy from Isaiah (Chapters 54 and 49) which claims something surprising for a nation that was always the smallest, the weakest, the most insignificant in terms of population. The claim is that at the end of days, Jews will be the largest nation on the planet and they will return in mass to Israel.

Have we seen the initial trickle of what may turn out to be a flood? Are the Ethiopian Jews a sign of more to come from the African continent? Are the Bnei Menashe of India a portend of a more significant influx from the subcontinent? Are the resurfacing Jews from throughout the Americas and Europe a hint of much more below the surface?

What of more ancient rumors and theories of the lost ten tribes? Are the Celts and their progeny somehow our long-lost cousins? Do the Jews of Kaifeng, China, really predate the Tang dynasty (618-907) and are they perhaps just the tip of the iceberg as to what part of the Chinese population is actually Jewish?

The possibilities are both intriguing and exciting. What would it mean to the world to suddenly have hundreds of millions of people, perhaps over a billion souls, identify themselves as Jewish, and show solidarity with Israel? That is one of the possible scenarios of the Messianic age.

May we be welcoming to all who seek us out and demonstrate kindness and graciousness to make us a tribe worth rejoining.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the Ethiopian Jews. You are our brothers, no matter what any bureaucrat says.

Children redeem

Children redeem

Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them. -James Baldwin

The structure of inheritance of the Land of Israel as stated in the Torah is unusual. It was based on the identity of the men of the generation preceding the exodus out of Egypt, but also dependent on the number of their male descendants that actually entered the land forty years later. That territory was bequeathed to the men that entered the land based on their connection to their grandfathers. However, if we think about it, this retroactively made their dead grandfathers the owners of that land that they never saw nor stepped on, by the mere fact that their grandchildren entered the land.

Rabbi Hirsch on Numbers 26:55 highlights this phenomenon and teaches two lessons from this inheritance mechanism.

One, that God’s promises — in this case, of the land of Israel – are so certain to come to pass, that they actually convey a legal right and it transformed the last generation of Jewish slaves in Egypt into the rightful landowners of the yet-to-be-conquered land, able to bequeath it to their grandchildren when they actually enter and take possession of the land.

Two, in Rabbi Hirsch’s own words: “The greatest and most precious acquisitions of parents and grandparents are children and grandchildren that prove themselves loyal and true to their heritage. Such progeny bear witness to the merits of its forebears and atones for their shortcomings.”

The generation of the desert was a particularly difficult generation. They had experienced the Exodus, seen the Ten Plagues upon Egypt, traversed the Parting of the Sea, and had been part of God’s Revelation at Mount Sinai where He declared the Ten Commandments and presented Moses with the entirety of the Torah. Nonetheless, they proved to be a stiff-necked people, creating and worshipping the Golden Calf, complaining and demonstrating consistent lack of faith in God and His precepts. That generation was doomed to die in the desert. They were not worthy of entering the Promised Land.

Nonetheless, even with such a historic disappointment, they must have done something right, for their children did enter and inherit the land. The children were worthy and they had received instruction from their parents.

Rabbi Hirsch elaborates: “… that the sons were given the land only as heirs of their fathers and as bearers of their names, proves that, notwithstanding the error that had cost their fathers the right to enter the land, these same fathers, during thirty-eight years of wandering in the wilderness, had implanted the right spirit in the new generation.”

Whether we like it or not, our children will often emulate and learn from us, for better or worse. However, they can also be a source of redemption, correcting the errors we didn’t have the opportunity, wisdom or strength to correct, but wished to nonetheless.

May we appreciate the positive lessons and model of our parents and may we aim to be worthy of emulation by the next generation.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To new colleagues and friends on the West Coast, and their children.

Deciphering Life’s Mission

Deciphering Life’s Mission 

How can we know ourselves? Never by reflection, but only through action. Begin at once to do your duty and immediately you will know what is inside you. -Johann von Goethe 
mount

Pinchas publicly kills the rebel prince Zimri, and his impromptu lover, Kozbi, during their act of public promiscuity, thereby stopping the deadly plague that killed 24,000 men of Israel. Pinchas is then awarded a “Pact of Peace” by God (see Numbers Chapter 25).

The Sfat Emet in 5645 (1885) states that this “Peace” is really “Completeness” and it is the highest attribute one can reach in life. However, it comes about when one finally understands his mission in this world. But to make matters trickier, he explains that it is impossible for us to find our life’s mission on our own. We can only understand it with God’s help.

The key to receiving this divine assistance, the Sfat Emet continues, is the Sabbath. On the Sabbath, a day designed for spiritual tranquility and joy, we can receive an “additional spirit” that somehow reveals our mission. Every person has their own particular hidden attributes they need to reveal and resistances they need to overcome. It’s a mission that lasts a lifetime.

May we figure out our missions and perform them successfully.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the Hogar Israelita (Jewish Old-Age Home) of Montevideo, on completing the important mission of achieving full Kosher certification for their facility.

Secrets of Creation

First posted on The Times of Israel at: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/pinhas-secrets-of-creation/

Baal Haturim Numbers: Pinhas

Secrets of Creation

This most beautiful system The Universe could only proceed from the dominion of an intelligent and powerful Being. -Sir Isaac Newton

creation-of-the-universe

The Talmud warns us not to delve too deeply into the origins of the Universe. It further states that those who are privy to the secrets of creation should only transmit them to worthy students, and even then only in private discussions.

As Moses prepares to pass the reigns of leadership to his disciple Joshua, the Baal Haturim on Numbers 27:20 reveals that Moses also transmitted to Joshua the secrets of the “Merkava” and of creation.

The “Merkava” (literaly, Chariot) refers to the prophetic visions documented by Ezekiel as to the divine presence. It is a very deep, esoteric study which preoccupies many kabbalists. Creation is likewise veiled by the mists of time. Even with various scientific theories and advances, we cannot easily answer some of the most basic questions as to how or why we have the particular physical universe we’re familiar with.

However, it was important for at least the spiritual leaders of the generation to have some familiarity with these fundamental concepts, to know, from tradition, what the elemental forces and functioning of both our spiritual and physical existence are.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Paco Diez, composer, singer and leading disseminator of traditional Sepharadic music. His concert in Montevideo was a spiritual experience.

with Paco Diez

Purposeful Reward

First posted on The Times of Israel at: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/pinchas-purposeful-reward/

Netziv Numbers: Pinchas

Purposeful Reward

Each of our acts makes a statement as to our purpose.” -Leo Buscaglia

It is one of the more violently graphic scenes in the Torah. Pinchas, grandson of Aaron the High Priest, takes a spear and in one blow kills a prince of Israel as well as a Moabite princess as they are being publicly intimate. The scene of this gruesome double murder is in front of the otherwise unresponsive leadership of Israel.

This fierce act is credited with stopping a sudden plague that killed 24,000 people in Israel for the sin of illicit relations. In what is perhaps the most surprising and ironic outcome of Pinchas’ vigilantism is that God bestows Pinchas with a “Covenant of Peace” and includes him in the prestigious caste of the Priesthood (to be a Kohen).

The Netziv on Numbers 25:13 explains that Pinchas’ reward is a natural outcome of his act. What Pinchas was in essence doing when he killed the overly affectionate lovers was protecting the Jewish people from a virulent licentiousness that had reached so far and with such fervor that a prince of Israel was ready to perform such an act publicly in front of the leaders of the nation. Pinchas stops the decadence dead in its tracks (literally).

For taking such a principled stand and for being ready to protect the nation of Israel from such immorality Pinchas is rewarded with the charge of continuing to protect the Jewish people. That was the classical task of the Kohen; to educate the nation of Israel as to God’s laws and traditions, to serve as role models of service of God and to thereby protect the Jewish people from the danger and damage of immorality.

May we each have the good fortune of finding our purposes and the reward of being able to fulfill that purpose.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the many and varied protectors of Israel and to our son Eitan who joined their forces this week.

The Power of Honoring

[First posted on The Times of Israel: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/pinhas-the-power-of-honoring/]

Ibn Ezra Numbers: Pinhas

The Power of Honoring

“Example is the school of mankind, and they will learn at no other” -Edmund Burke

God has informed Moses of his impending forced retirement. Moses will not cross the Jordan River with the people of Israel to enter the promised land. Rather, God tells him that he will ascend the mountain, see the land, and die there outside of Canaan. Moses makes a final request of God: don’t leave the people leaderless – appoint someone to follow me.

God acquiesces to the request and informs Moses that his disciple Joshua will take over the reins of leadership. Joshua is the one that will lead the people into Canaan and conquer the land.

In the first act of “semicha” or ordination, Moses places his hands upon Joshua and transmits to him some of his spirit, his glory, his authority. Ibn Ezra on Numbers 27:20 is so impressed by this act that he claims it had the immediate effect of raising Joshua’s status in the eyes of the entire nation. By Moses honoring Joshua so, by raising Joshua to his own level, he showed the highest form of respect. The people of Israel immediately understood the action of Moses, the honor that he was showing Joshua, and they learned to honor Joshua as well, following Moses’ example.

May we always have opportunity to see deserving people honored.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the chain of tradition, that has continued from Moses until this day. See here for an interesting presentation showing the unbroken chain of ordination that includes some of my Rabbis.