Sermons and Parsha'iot          Parshat Pinchas: Numbers 25:10 - 30:1

At the end of last week's parasha, we were introduced to Pinchas, the grandson of Aaron, who skewered on his spear a defiant Israelite, Zimri son of Salu and a Midianite woman, Cozbi daughter of Zur. Their deaths stopped the plague which God sent as a punishment for the reckless behavior of the Israelites. Indeed, it is this act which God cites as the reason for raising Pinchas' family to be the eternal priesthood and which provides the name for this week's Torah portion. God also commands Moses that the people must maintain a state of enmity with the Midianites because they allured the Jewish People to sin.

The parasha continues with the rise of a new generation and its preparations for entering the Land of Israel. At the border of Moab near Jericho, God instructs Moses and Eleazar, the priest, to conduct a census of all male Israelites over the age of twenty, and thus eligible for military service. They do so, and the number comes to 601,730. This census was extremely important because God tells Moses that the size of each tribe's portion in the Land of Canaan will be determined according to the male members of each tribe as counted according to this census. Only the Levites are counted separately because, dedicated to lifelong Temple service, they are both ineligible for military service and ownership of land. (Of those counted, only Joshua, Caleb and Moses himself had been counted in the first census in the wilderness of Sinai. All the other adults had died in the desert, as had been decreed by God.)

The daughters of Zelophechad come before Moses with a problem. Their father died in the Wilderness, and he didn't have any sons. What would their inheritance be? Moses checks with God, and God says that women may inherit and provides Moses with the order of inheritance within a family. The names of the daughters of Zelophechad are given: Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah.

God orders Moses to ascend to the top of Mount Abarim, there to view the Promised Land that the Israelites will soon enter - although Moses himself will not live to enter it. At Moses' suggestion (" . so that the Lord's community may not be like sheep that have no shepherd" ), God designates Joshua bin Nun as his successor. Moses invests Joshua with God's authority in front of Eleazar and the whole community.

The parasha concludes with God's instructing Moses yet again about all the offerings (which now include libations) of the service in the Sanctuary during the various holidays in the yearly cycle. On Shabbat, an extra sacrifice was to be brought (Numbers 28:9-10). This offering was called "musaf" (additional), and in shul the Musaf service on Shabbat replaces it.


Within the Torah text itself, Moses takes the news of his exclusion from the land and his impending death in a very matter of fact manner. But in the midrash the rabbis create a very different Moses who argues and pleads to be allowed to live and to enter the land. According to the midrash, when Moses realized that the decree of death had been sealed against him, he drew a small circle around himself, stood in it, and said, "Master of the universe, I will not budge from here until You void that decree." Moses persisted in prayer and supplication until heaven and earth - indeed all things made during the six days of creation - were shaken, so that they said, "Perhaps the intention of the Holy One to remake the world is about to be executed." A divine voice came forth and said: "As yet, the Holy One's intention to remake the world is not about to be executed. But the words `in whose hand is the soul of every living thing' (Job 12:10) are in force and apply even to Moses." (Sefer Ha-Aggadah 101:137)

Moses then beseeched God to be allowed to serve as Joshua's disciple. Various midrashim describe how Moses faithfully ministered to Joshua, but when God called Joshua to the Tent of Meeting, Moses demonstrated his reluctance to give up his former role. When Joshua came out of the Tent, Moses asked him, "What did Adonai say to you?" Joshua replied, "When the Word was revealed to you, did I know what it said to you?" In that instant, Moses cried out in anguish and said, "Rather a hundred deaths than a single pang of envy!" (Sefer Ha-Aggadah 103:137)

Some Thoughts and Questions

  1. The text points out that Zimri, who was slain by Pinchas, was a prince of the tribe of Shimon. The midrash (Numbers Rabbah 21:3) points out that by specifying the guilty man's family the Torah is teaching an important lesson: If a person stains his or her own reputation, the reputation of his or her whole family is affected. In what ways does your behavior (both the good and the bad) reflect on your family? Does this knowledge influence how you act? 

  2. According to the commentary of Rabbi Mordechai Hacohen (who lived in Israel from 1906-1972), when it came time to appoint a new leader Moses asked God to choose "a man among men; a man, not a superman; a man, not a burning zealot like Pinchas." Why would Pinchas not be a good choice as the leader of the Israelites? Would you want a Pinchas-type to be president of the United States? What kind of parent would Pinchas be? 

  3. According to the parasha, Moses asks God to appoint a leader who would "go out before the people and come in before them" (Numbers 27:17). A Chassidic commentary points out that a true leader must "go out before the people" - and not trail behind them. The leader must not be constantly looking back to see what they want. How does this apply to our expectations of political leadership in America today? . of rabbinic leadership? 

  4. Since most ancient law allows only sons and male relatives to inherit, allowing women to inherit was an innovation of the Torah. What led to this innovation? Are the rules in your family ever changed to fit new circumstances or needs? If you feel a rule needs to be changed how do you go about making it happen? What can you learn from the behavior of the daughters of Zelophechad when they sought to change a rule? In what ways could you apply how they approached their problem to the problems you face?

  5. Do you think that women were discriminated against in biblical society? Are they today? 

  6. Look at the midrashim summarized in the Commentary section. Which depiction of Moses rings truer for you, the one found in the Torah or the one described by the rabbis in the midrash? Why do you think the rabbis wrote these midrashim about Moses? What caused Moses to give up his quest for his life? Why was he envious of Joshua? What had Moses lost? 

  7. What were the rabbis trying to teach us through the midrash about Moses' death about leadership, power, and authority; and what were they teaching us, ultimately, about death? Think of individuals who have been world leaders. What happened to them when their term was up? What did they do? Who did they become? Were their transitions easy or difficult?

  8. What are some of the transitions you have witnessed personally within your family? Did they happen easily or with difficulty? What factors played into the transitions? What emotions did you see or experience? How did you react to these events? How did other members of your family react?