Parashat Pinchas: What do we notice and what do we value?

Pinchas has always been a problem. We are told that this sidra begins where it does, in the middle of the narrative – to cause an interruption between the violent act and the divine response, in order the record the disapproval of the Babylonian rabbis who divided the sidrot.  A distance is created between the horror of what he did, and the reward that God seems to offer.  To read the story straight through would cause us many problems with God – how can such a terrible act be so calmly and gladly acceptable?

The Rabbis of the Talmud (San 82b) struggle with the story too. The act of Pinchas is repugnant. Rabbi Yochanan deals with the problem by giving all the responsibility to God :

Rabbi Yochanan taught that Pinchas was able to accomplish his act of zealotry only because God performed six miracles: [First, upon hearing Pinchas’s warning, Zimri should have withdrawn from Cozbi and ended his transgression, but he did not. Second, Zimri should have cried out for help from his fellow Simeonites, but he did not. Third, Pinchas was able to drive his spear exactly through the sexual organs of Zimri and Cozbi as they were engaged in the act. Fourth, Zimri and Cozbi did not slip off the spear, but remained fixed so that others could witness their transgression. Fifth, an angel came and lifted up the lintel so that Pinchas could exit holding the spear. And sixth, an angel came and sowed destruction among the people, distracting the Simeonites from killing Pinchas. (B Talmud Sanhedrin 82b.)]

Pinchas becomes simply the conduit of God’s will, and his act of individual violence is subsumed under the divine plan. But this isn’t the only rabbinic struggle with the text: on the same page of Talmud we read that after Pinchas killed Zimri and Cozbi, the Israelites began berating him for his presumption, as he himself was descended from a Midianite idolater, Jethro. ..To counter this attack, God detailed Pinchas’s descent from the peaceful Aaron the Priest. And then God told Moses to extend a greeting of peace to Pinchas, so as to calm the crowd. (B Talmud Sanhedrin 82b.)]

Here the Rabbis show the Israelites shifting the responsibility for Pinchas’ actions not onto God, but onto Pinchas’ own mixed ancestry, implying that Pinchas maybe wasn’t quite ‘one of us’, his actions not those of a mensch.

In these examples we see that the Rabbinic tradition felt both a revulsion for what Pinchas did, and a need to transform the event in some way; to try to reconcile our disgust at his act, with God’s approval of it. While God may have valued Pinchas’ actions enough to offer him the reward of the priesthood, our tradition remains uncomfortable. We find reasons for this reward – it was given because the plague stopped, it is because he saved the people, it is for anything but the actual act of violent murder without judicial process that it seems to be.

The story of the daughters of Zelophehad is easier to the modern mind – in fact often the modern mind finds it hard to see the problem in the first place. Zelophehad has died and left no son. So who will inherit from him, and what will be the status of his five daughters?  It isn’t an issue for Moses either, until the daughters come before him to remind him of their existence and to request that they inherit the estate. Moses is so surprised he has no answer – this is simply not part of his world view – and he goes to God for a response.  Luckily God proves to be a feminist and the women get to inherit in their own right.  Today we find this solution to be clearly right. Yet for the Rabbis of the Talmud again they needed to explicate the result – the claims of gender equality were not part of their world, not noticed and not valued.

So we are told, for example: Rabbi Joshua taught that Zelophehad’s daughters petitioned first the assembly, then the chieftains, then Eleazar, and finally Moses” B Talmud Baba Batra 119b) as if it was their following due process was somehow the deciding factor in the decision.  We are also told in a Baraita that Zelophehad’s daughters were wise, Torah students, and righteous.  That they demonstrated their wisdom by raising their case in a timely fashion, just as Moses was expounding the law of levirate marriage; and they argued for their inheritance by reference to that law. (Babylonian Talmud Baba Batra 119b.).

According to the midrash they saw the world very clearly, so that “When the daughters of Zelophehad heard that the land was being divided among the tribes but not among the women, they convened to discuss the matter. They said, “God’s mercy and compassion is not like the compassion of humankind. Humankind favours men over women. God is not like that. God’s compassion extends to men and women alike…” ( Yalkut Shimoni, Pinchas, 27; Sifri 27:1).

Both Pinchas and the daughters of Zelophehad caused real problems to the rabbis – they notice that Pinchas’ act of violence goes against all the values and rules of their world, yet it seems to be welcomed by God, so they struggled to signal their own disapproval, to reframe the act so that it is not possible for anyone else to repeat it, and to deal with the apparent delight of God. In this story they notice what is going on, and their job is to try to keep it together with the values and judgements they are hoping to transmit into the future.

The daughters of Zelophehad however are simply less visible or accessible to the rabbis, as they are clearly barely visible to Moses until they bring themselves forward. I would posit that because the idea of gender equality is not part of the ancient world view, they simply cannot conceive of it, even when it is presented to them with clarity and due process. They do not notice it and so they do not value it. One might add that in certain streams of the Jewish world that has not changed much! But that isn’t my point.

What I do want to say is this: What we do not notice for whatever reason, we do not value. And what we do not value for whatever reason, we do not notice. While something may be clearly apparent to someone else – think of Pinchas’ instinctive response to the actions of Cozbi and Zimri – if the tramlines of our mind don’t run on that route, we just won’t see it. And because Moses and the others didn’t see that they had to take action on the behaviour of the people rather than simply lecture them, they didn’t take any action and they didn’t value the action that was taken. It was left to God to show that Pinchas, while clearly hot-headed and over the top, was at least on the right lines. I have always felt that the reward of the covenant of eternal priesthood was at the very least an ironic reward – it would rein in the impulsive nature of a Pinchas into the very disciplined world of ritual purity and choreography and leave no space for him to behave that way again. God may have valued what Pinchas did, but he also noticed that such a zealous personality needed some serious boundaries – and so God provided them.

When Moses brings the request of the daughters of Zelophehad to God, the response is “The daughters of Zelophehad speak rightly…”  Rashi explains that God was saying : “[As the daughters of Zelophehad spoke it] so is this section of Torah written before Me on high.” This informs us that their eyes saw what the eye of Moses did not see.” (on Num 27:7)

Moses is the greatest prophet who ever lived, and yet the daughters of Zelophehad apparently saw something that he did not see. Each of us notices and values what is of meaning and importance to us, and each of us can teach the others in our world about the things that have meaning for us, so that we can all learn to value and to notice what may otherwise go unvalued and unnoticed. If we teach each other to see what we can see, we increase the richness of our understanding of our world, and so grow closer to its Creator.

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