Your Heritage – Parshat Pinchas 5779

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When Duncan and I decided to get married, one of the questions we had to consider was what I would do about my last name. The traditional expectation (though not so much these days) was that I would take his name, making me “Mrs. Gilman” or “Rabbi Gilman.” However, as much as I love him and his family, something didn’t sit right with me about changing my name. My sister and I are the last two Posens of our generation, and we have no male cousins who would automatically carry on that name. Also, I became a rabbi largely because of the influence of my family. I grew up sitting in shul with my grandparents and celebrating holidays and virtually every Shabbat with my family. I am who I am, a Posen, because of that experience, and since all of my grandparents and my father had passed before my ordination, becoming “Rabbi Posen” was a way for me to honor their legacy and carry on our family name for one more generation.

So much of Jewish law focuses on the traditions of our forefathers, but this week’s Torah portion, Pinchas, takes the first step in changing the standard. Parshat Pinchas begins with the story of Pinchas (identified as Aaron’s grandson) and the extreme action he took toward those who defied the prohibition against idolatry. Then we move to the daughters of Zelophechad (Joseph’s great-great-great-grandson), who want to inherit land after their father’s death because he had no sons. Then Joshua is appointed Moshe’s successor, and we end with the sacrifices we are to make for Rosh Chodesh and the holidays.

The daughters of Zelophechad represent an interesting moment in the Bible. Traditionally, women were not guaranteed inheritance from their father’s estate. If a man died, his inheritance was for the sons. In this case, there were no surviving sons, and the daughters felt it was their right to receive their father’s estate. The daughters petition Moshe for this, and Moshe doesn’t know how to proceed. The daughters argue that by not receiving an inheritance, their father’s name will be wiped out. The ownership of land was more than monetary security; it was the security of their legacy and their place in the world.

So much of what we do in the world is tied to where we’ve come from. Whether land or legacy, we have an identity that shapes us and tells our story, and the Torah this week reminds us that that story is worth fighting for.

The Same, But Different – Parshat Pinchas 5778

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When I was pregnant with Matan, I heard many well-meaning reminders not to compare the two children. It is inevitable, though, that we look for similarities when we look at our children. Whether in the way they look (my two look exactly the same), the age at which they meet certain milestones (Matan is slightly faster in some respects), or their nature in general, I find it difficult to stop myself from noticing how they’re alike. The only problem is that all the tricks and parenting strategies I’ve honed with Shiri will fail on Matan, and I’ll be forced to remember that while they may look the same, they are completely different children.

This doesn’t just apply to parents. If you have a sibling, you have likely gone through this too. Perhaps you’ve had the experience of sitting in class on the first day of school, when a teacher reads your last name and then makes a comment about your older sibling who had the very same class. You’ve instantly gone from being an individual with your own identifying qualities to being linked to whatever behaviors and expectations – good or bad – the teacher associates with another member of your family.  

The Torah is full of stories of siblings and the wrongs or rights they’ve done to one another. We hear stories of sibling rivalries, betrayal, and support. Our parshah this week, Pinchas, is no exception. The Torah portion bounces from event to event; you’ll get dizzy trying to keep up. We begin with the story of Pinchas (identified as Aaron’s grandson) and the extreme action he took against those who defied the prohibition of idolatry. Then we move to the daughters of Zelophechad (Joseph’s great-great-great-grandson), who want to inherit land after their father’s death because he had no sons. Then Joshua is appointed Moshe’s successor, and we end with the sacrifices we are to make for Rosh Hodesh and the holidays.  

During the recalling of the census, we learn the following:

Born to Pallu: Eliab. The sons of Eliab were Nemuel, and Dathan and Aviram. These are the same Dathan and Aviram, chosen in the assembly, who agitated against Moses and Aaron as part of Korach’s band when they agitated against the Lord.

We learned the story of Dathan and Aviram earlier in the Torah when they joined with Korach and caused a great deal of trouble. Suddenly, here in our parshah, we learn that there was a third brother, Nemuel.

This older brother didn’t join his younger brothers in their nefarious activities, which means we now have the narrative of three brothers, raised in the same environment and with the same parenting, who did not all turn out the same. Can you imagine Nemuel going to school and having people find out he’s the older brother of the two troublemakers?

This week’s parshah offers an interesting version of the nature versus nurture debate. We see that brothers can be similar biologically, yet have opposite values and leadership qualities. It’s a helpful reminder – whether with students, children, or siblings – not to rely on assumptions, but to judge each person on their own merit.  

 

Mystery Woman – Parshat Pinchas 5777

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I love learning about my family history. My grandparents all did a fairly decent job of remembering and recalling details about cousins, aunts, and uncles from generations back. They could pick up an old photograph and instantly recall the name of the person and how they were connected to the rest of the family. In some cases there were complicated histories behind the people and relationships in these photographs. And then there were always a few pictures that had a name written on them, but no one knew exactly whom that person was. I imagine many families are like this; there are pictures that tell the story of your family tree, and yet there are still one or two faces or names for which no one can remember the connection.

As Jews, the Torah is our family ancestry project, and throughout its text it shares stories of different generations and the relationships between the generations. This week’s parshah, Pinchas, is no different. We begin with the story of Pinchas (identified as Aaron’s grandson) and the extreme action he took against those who defied the prohibition of idolatry. Then we move to the daughters of Zelophechad (Joseph’s great-great-great-grandson), who want to inherit land after their father’s death because he had no sons. Then Joshua is appointed Moshe’s successor, and we end with the sacrifices we are to make for Rosh Chodesh and the holidays.

For the most part, we know the history of our matriarchs, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah, and who they married and which children they mothered. However, one woman’s name stands out in the Torah without much background given. Certainly there are plenty of people who are only mentioned once, but the name Serach appears twice in the Five Books of Moses and again later in Prophets (Nevi’im). Yet her presence in both places remains a mystery. She is the woman you can’t quite identify in the picture.

In the Torah, Serach’s mention appears to be purely anecdotal, but she is also mentioned in Samuel 2, verse 16:

Then a wise woman called from the city, “Hear, hear! Please tell Joab, ‘Come here that I may speak with you.'”

It may not be obvious at first glance, but according to Rashi, Serach is alluded to as the isha chochma (wise woman) who challenges the general for not knowing the Torah’s rules for besieging a city.

While her exact role in our ancestral “family” and how she lived so long between these sections of biblical text are relatively unknown, Serach is nevertheless a wise woman and a part of our ancestry. There are plenty of well-known Torah stories we hear over and over again, year after year. Children and adults alike can recall Noah, Joseph, and Moshe in great detail. However, reading Parshat Pinchas this week I am reminded that an individual’s “fame” within the context of our history simply means we know their story. The people in the photographs whose names we do not know are just as important, though their stories may remain untold.

Count Off – Parshat Pinchas 5776

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When I worked in the day school world and we’d take the kids on a field trip, we had to keep track of the group throughout each portion of the excursion. That meant taking attendance about 100 times (at least it felt like that many). We’d check to see if we were all there when we got on the bus, when we arrived at a destination, and then when we got back on the bus (and in the evening and morning for overnight trips). It felt like I was constantly counting little heads. The counting was both to reassure me that all kids were accounted for, but also meant that the kids were responsible to each other for being on time for the count because no one liked having to count off multiple times.

The act of taking attendance is even a Torah commandment. This week we read parshat Pinchas. We begin with the story of Pinchas (identified as Aaron’s grandson) and the extreme action he took against those who defied the prohibition of idolatry. Then we move to the daughters of Zelophechad (Joseph’s great-great-great-grandson), who want to inherit land after their father’s death because he had no sons. Then Joshua is appointed Moshe’s successor, and we end with the sacrifices we are to make for Rosh Hodesh and the holidays.

Chapter 26 begins with a census of the Israelite nation. The book of Bamidbar (Numbers) itself also begins with a census, so it seems a bit strange to be engaging in another counting of the people when their location hasn’t changed. This census appears to come as the generation that left Egypt is dying out, thus its purpose is to learn about the land requirements of each clan and tribe. But more than that, according to Rashi, the situation is “Like a shepherd numbering his flock after wolves have attacked it.” In other words, after the mistrust and general bad behavior that had marred the fledgling nation, God is simply retooling, recounting the Israelites to see how many are left.

God is reminding us that, census or not, our responsibility is to look out for one another. Roll calls in general work this way. They help identify who is present and who is missing, but they also help a community gauge the state of its members. When we don’t see a familiar face we usually see, it signals us to follow up and check in on that friend. And as members of a community, counting each other is a way of counting on each other.