Sunday, July 16, 2017

Parshas Pinchas 5777

About Stories

When we are children, the stories that we are told are often simplified and are reduced to black and white. This is especially true in regards to good and evil, especially in regards to people and actions. However, it is only when we grow up that we realize that the world around us, ourselves included, does not operate in black and white terms but rather gray. People, events and actions are almost always gray, not wholly good or bad. We also find a similar phenomenon in adulthood in regards to things like politics and war, where great sections of the populace end up being convinced to believe in things in the same child-like terms of black and white, good and evil.

What actually happens in these cases is that as children, we are unable to yet grasp the complexity of the world. When we become adults, it is sometimes easier to revert to this child-like behavior as well. In both instances, we end up outsourcing our critical thinking to others and end up relying on their determination of what is good and evil, rather than doing that analysis ourselves. Unfortunately, reality is usually more nuanced, and is almost never black and white, good and evil.

The Story of Pinchas and Zimri

It is common for us to remain on the same "cheder" understanding of many stories in the Torah, which we are initially told when we are children. The same is true for the story of Pinchas and Zimri in this week's parsha. The simplistic understanding of the story goes as follows:

The evil Moabites and Midianites hated the newly redeemed Israelites. They did not have the military power to attack them directly, so they hired Bilaam to curse them. When Bilaam was unable to curse them, he recommended that they should try to entrap the Israelites in sin instead, so G-d gets angry at them and punishes them. The Midianites and Moabites proceeded to do just that by sending out their women to entice the Israelites men into multiple sins including immorality and idol worship. Among those enticed into sin was an evil man named Zimri, the prince of the tribe of Shimon. When Moshe and the other leaders started to judge those who sinned, Zimri who wanted to continue living in sin, grabbed his paramour - a princess named Cozbi, and brought her to Moshe. He challenged Moshe by asking: "Is she permitted or forbidden, and if she is forbidden how is that different from your wife, who is also a foreigner?". With Moshe unable to answer, he proceed to lead Cozbi with him to his tent. At that time, a righteous man named Pinchas - who was a grandson of Aharon haCohen and great-nephew of Moshe, but not a Cohen himself, approached. He was often mocked by others for also being a grandson of Yisro (through his mother). He took matters in his own hands and with a spear, killed both Zimri and Cozbi. The shocking action stopped both the populace that was sinning and the plague that G-d brought on them. As a reward, Pinchas was made a Cohen in his own right, even though he wasn't originally one.

In the classic simplistic retelling of the story, the lines are colored in black and white - the Moabites and Midianites are evil, and so is Zimri and Cozbi. On the other side we have the righteous Pinchas who was the underdog of the story. He leaps into action, does the right thing and gets rewarded. Bad guys lost, good guys win, and the curtain sets, right? However, if you look closer at the story we will find that things aren't quite black and white, good and evil, but quite more nuanced and gray, just like the real world is.

Moabites and Midianites

In the end of the previous week's parsha we find that the Israelite men sinned with Moabite women. However, it is the Midianites that end up being attacked later in Parshas Mattos and not the Moabites. The commentators explain that this was either because the Moabites motivation was fear which was legitimate, or it was because the idea to seduce the people came from Midian as the result of them hiring Bilaam. So while the simplistic reading of the story may imply that they did it because of hate, the more nuanced reading suggests that it may only have been the Midianites but not Moab.

Additionally, we also find that later on the Torah excludes Moabite men from joining the congregation but not Moabite women, because they did not bring out food and water. However, Moabite women like Ruth were not excluded because they were essentially powerless in a male-dominated society. This would seem to extend to the case here as well, where it seems that the women were forced into this episode and did not go into it of their own free will. Thus, while they may have gone on to try and seduce the Israelites, they may have been forced into it.

Zimri and Cozbi

The simplistic reading implies that Cozbi seduced Zimri, and then in the heat of passion he went and challenged the leadership of Moshe. However, the Talmud (Sanhedrin 82b) tells us two facts that challenge this interpretation. First of all, Cozbi's name wasn't really Cozbi but she was called that because she wasn't true (Cozbi means "false") to what her father (Balak) told her to do. He commanded her to target the very top leadership like Moshe and Aharon, but instead when she ran into Zimri it was Zimri who convinced her to ago along with him.

The second thing that we find in the Talmud is that Zimri was not motivated by lust or passion. Rather, he acted after various members of his tribe of Shimon cam running to him asking for help once they saw that Moshe setup a court of law to judge and prosecute the sinners. It was only then that Zimri went ahead and decided to challenge the leadership of Moshe in order to save his people, not due to passion. It was a well intentioned but a misguided gesture.

We also find a curious coincidence. Our Sages tell us that Cozbi's father was Balak, and Balak himself was a grandson of Yisro. Pinchas's grandfather was also Yisro, and Moshe's father-in-law was Yisro as well. When Zimri brings Cozbi to Moshe and challenges him, this coincidence may take on a special meaning - Zimri was challenging Moshe's marriage with a daughter of Yisro by bringing in front of him a great-grand daughter of the same person - Yisro - and asking how can one be permitted and one be forbidden. It may be possible that this was part of Zimri's plan all along. 

The Act of Pinchas 

On a simplistic level, the story is read in a way that implies that the actual action that Pinchas did was a good thing. However, if we dig deeper there is an issue with it: Moshe setup a court of law and proceed to try and execute the sinners in accordance to Torah law. As the Sages discuss, the action of Pinchas was extra-judicial and lay outside of boundaries of regular Torah law. As mentioned by the Rambam, it was something that is not even normally taught for the fear of it being misused, if someone comes and asks whether it should be done we would tell him no, and if he gets killed in the process of trying to do it the other party cannot be prosecuted. It was vigilante justice  - an action taken only in extreme circumstances, and only by someone who can do it with 100% correct intentions. So while it accomplished the goal of stopping Zimri, shocking the other sinners and stopping the plague, the action itself lies outside the scope of normal Halacha as administrated by the courts of law.


In regards of Pinchas himself, we also find two additional incidents in his life where he was punished for what seems to be zealousness that should not have been pursued. The first incident happens when the Judge Yiftach makes a vow that ends up with his daughter about to be killed or banished. Our Sages tell us that both Yiftach and Pinchas were punished because they should have traveled to each other in order to have this vow annulled by Pinchas, but each thought that the other one should be the one traveling because of the proper honor of their respective positions (Judge and Cohen Gadol). As the result, Pinchas lost the gift of prophecy - for what seems to have been zealousness about the proper honor of his position, but not his personal honor.

We find a second incident later on, during the incident of the Concubine at Giveh, the entire nation ended up initiating a civil war which resulted in the tribe of Benjamin almost being wiped out. Tanna deBei Eliyahu writes that Pinchas was punished during this episode and was stripped of being the Cohen Gadol. Why - because he should have protested against the war plans. As commentators explain, he could not bring himself to protect the people who did a similar immoral action like Zimri.

Pinchas's Reward

While many commentators learn that Pinchas's reward was the grant of priesthood, there are others that disagree. The core of the disagreement revolves around a disagreement in the Talmud of when the priesthood was granted to Aharon if it included grandchildren already born or not. According to those that learn he was already a priest himself, the reward that he received was different (either that he would have a peaceful life or that many High Priests would descend from him).

Additional Notes

The commentators point out Pinchas was a descendant of Levi, and Zimri was a descendant of Shimon. The two brothers were the ones who acted in zealousness to protect their sister's honor during the episode of Dinah's kidnapping in Schechem, but now when Shimon's descendant sinned a similar way it was up to the remaining brother to act.

Another interesting thing that we find is that the Talmud tells us that Zimri was the same person as Shaul, son of Shimon, which many explain as being either the son of Simon and Dinah, or perhaps even the son of Schechem from Dinah who was adopted by Shimon as his step son.

We also find in the verses, that both Cozbi's father and Zimri may not have been the heads of their tribes (Midian and Shimon) but only the heads of one of the houses (there were 5 in Midian and 5 in Shimon).

There are discussions in Hassidic sefarim about that Pinchas was wrong and that Zimri was right in their actions based on Kabballah sources (see Rabbi Mordechai Yosef of Izhbitz, in Sefer Mei Shiloach).

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Parshas Balak 5777

Continuity Issues

In this week's Parsha, some of the characters are purposed to live a very long time:
  1. Balaam - our Sages tell us that he was also Laban and Cushan-Rashasaaim (a king that appears during the times of the Prophets). That would make Balaam live for hundreds of years. Additionally, later in the Torah he is killed "by the edge of the sword" which makes this harder to understand. Also, the Talmud tells us that Balaam was 33 years old at the time of his death and as the same time we have Midrashim that tell us that he advised Pharoh to kill the male babies prior to the birth of Moses over 80 years earlier.
  2. Zimri -  our Sages tell us that he was the same person as Shalmuel, the prince of the tribe of Simeon, and Saul son of Dinah. That would also make him live for hundreds of years. Additionally, according to some commentators, the princes died and were replaced before the story of Balak.
  3. Phineas - our Sages connect Phineas with Enoch from before the Flood,  Elijah the prophet and the angel Matatron. However, Enoch was taken to Heaven alive thousands of years later.
  4. Talking donkey - as the Mishnah in Avos writes, "the mouth" of the donkey was created during the six days of creation.
There are several general approaches to dealing with characters living such long time:
  1. Accept it as fact and a miracle deviating from nature. However, this is not necessary in all cases unless it is clear from the text or our Sages that it was the same person literally. We find this in regards to Achijah the Shilonite and Serach daughter of Asher, but it is not explicit here.
  2. Explain this as a "descendant of", or that the people that appear here are descended from the original people mentioned but aren't them. That is the approach that can be found in Chizkuni that explains that the Balaam in this week's Parshah was the grandson of the original Balaam.
  3. Explain this as a reincarnation of the original person or some sort of spiritual but not physical transfer. This would explain all the cases here, even the donkey (since the concept of the talking donkey was created earlier but not the donkey itself).
  4. This approach only applies in some cases but not here. In some cases where a title is used like Abimelech or Pharaoh, it can refer to different people with the same title.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Parshas Chukas 5777

The Rise and Fall of Balaam the Prophet

We find a curious thing in the end of this week's parsha (Numbers 21:26-30), where the Torah is quoting what is seemingly a non-Jewish book:
Therefore the bards would recite: “Come to Heshbon; firmly built And well founded is Sihon’s city. For fire went forth from Heshbon, Flame from Sihon’s city, Consuming Ar of Moab, The lords of Bamoth by the Arnon. Woe to you, O Moab! You are undone, O people of Chemosh! His sons are rendered fugitive And his daughters captive By an Amorite king, Sihon.” Yet we have cast them down utterly, Heshbon along with Dibon; We have wrought desolation at Nophah, Which is hard by Medeba.
According to Rashi (ibid) this poem was recited by Balaam and his father Beor whom Sihon hired them to curse the Moabites [it is unclear if this in fact was the curse itself].  What is also interesting is Balaam is one of the few characters in the Torah whose writing is also found outside the Torah (see the Deir Alla inscription). What was special about Balaam?

Balaam had a talking donkey, one of the two animals in the Torah that was able to talk (the other one was the Snake in the Garden of Eden). However, the donkey was made to talk not in Balaam's merit and died right after (see Rashi ibid).

Balaam was also a magician. There are generally two types of magic discussed by the Sages, one of which is magic accomplished through a deal with a demon (see the servants of Pharaoh) and the other by changing nature by compelling an angel through a divine name or something similar (see Sefer Derech Hashem). Balaam's skill lay in the second area as our Sages discuss - Balaam was able to know when G-d got angry and redirect that anger. We also find a similar concept later on that he was able to figure out which actions can cause this anger by advising Balak on how to make the Israelites sin.

Balaam was also a prophet and as our Sages tell us even greater than Moses, and was able to talk to G-d directly. Later on, Balaam refers to himself as a man "with an open eye" and some explain that as a reference to a prophetic lens. Most prophets interpret their message through the lens of their personality which is why we find during the time of King Zedekiah that he sought out a female prophet (Chuldah) because she would be softer speaking. The uniqueness of Moses as a prophet was that while he possessed a similar "lens", that lens was entirely clear and did not change the message. Balaam's uniqueness was even greater in that respect that there was no lens at all and as we see later G-d was able to talk directly through Balaam to Balak when He pulled Balaam as a "fish with a hook".

Balaam's potential laid in the fact that if another nation were to accept the Torah, he would have served the same function as Moses in transmitting that message. However, he choose not to pursue that mission and instead ended up trying to hurt the people of G-d by advising Pharaoh, then by going to curse them and later on giving advice to Balak on how to make them sin.