Thursday, 01 Jul 2010

Written by Rabbi Professor Marc Saperstein

The parashah for this week is not without its challenges and problems. At the end of last week’s reading, we saw Pinchas, the grandson of Aaron, murder with a bayonet-like weapon an Israelite and a Midianite woman in flagrante. The first verses of this week’s reading appear to provide divine sanction for a zealous, violent, religious fanaticism, which becomes the justification for a perpetual covenant of priesthood with Pinchas and his descendants (Num. 25: 6–13). Last year’s LBC D’var Torah in this parashah, by Rabbi Tony Bayfield, is a powerful and provocative treatment of this passage{footnote}Available on the LBC website at: or in The Modern Men’s Torah Commentary: New Insights by Jewish Men on the 54 Weekly Torah Portions, edited by Rabbi Jeffrey K Salkin (Woodstock, Vt.: Jewish Lights), 2009, pp. 233–39.{/footnote}.

The continuation of the passage attributes to God a mandate for a holy war against the Midianite neighbours of the people of Israel (Num. 25: 16–18). These verses have been explained by emphasizing the dangers of assimilation to the seductions of sexual licentiousness and idolatry. But they seem more relevant to the question of the role of religion in our time, when we see so many examples of intemperate religious zeal directed toward inappropriate ends. They represent patterns of behaviour that suggest the capacity for intolerance and fanaticism in our own tradition, leading many of us to feel the need to dissent from some of its teachings.

Yet the parashah also presents two other stunning narratives that reveal dramatically different aspects of our tradition.  First is of the daughters of Zelophehad, who complain to Moses that as women they have been unfairly disenfranchised from inheriting their father’s estate. Moses recognizes the apparent justice of their claim; he turns to God for new instruction, and he receives a divine mandate to adjust the law of inheritance in favour of greater rights for women (Num. 27: 1–10). This was beautifully discussed in the previous year’s d’var torah by Rabbi Deborah Kahn-Harris.

The second passage is extraordinary in a different way. Moses is commanded to ascend the mountain and prepare for his death (Num. 27: 12–14). Despite his disappointment in not being privileged to lead the people to their ultimate destination, his reaction is not to wallow in self-pity. Rather he beseeches God to authorise a replacement: leadership with the appropriate qualities that would come from a new, younger generation.

He is then instructed to take Joshua and, in a public ceremony, before the entire people, to commission him by stating his responsibilities and the limits of his prerogatives, and to place his hands upon him – ve-samakhta et yadekha alav—in order to symbolize the continuity and transference of authority to the next generation (Num. 27:15–23). This process of the orderly, public transfer of leadership, which we experienced following the recent election, and the United States exemplified in the period between November 2008 and January 2009, is assumed in modern democracies. It has been extremely unusual throughout most of recorded history and it remains uncertain in many parts of the world still today.

The verb ve-samakhta, gives us the word semikha, the traditional term for rabbinical ordination, providing a chain of transmission through the ages. Jews assume that when a rabbi serving their community decides to retire, there will be other, younger rabbis well-trained to fulfil the entire range of rabbinic responsibilities and provide continuity of rabbinic leadership. But this will be true only if rabbinical seminaries such as Leo Baeck College continue to receive the support that is necessary for the fulfilment of our mission: to ensure that there will be qualified men and women ready to pick up the mantle of leadership, like Joshua, for a new generation of our people.

God is understood in this parashah to endorse very different models of religious commitment: the zealous, violent model of Pinchas, the model of flexible accommodation to our sense of justice and fairness with the daughters of Zelophehad, and the model of assuring continuity in human leadership from generation to generation through the commissioning of Joshua.  

Our future may well be bound up with the decision whether the first, or the second and third of these models, will prevail in the world.

Rabbi Professor Marc Saperstein
July 2010



The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.