Mystery Woman – Parshat Pinchas 5777

mystery-woman

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.

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Count Off – Parshat Pinchas 5776

Count Off

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.

A Balancing Act – Parshat Pinchas 5775

Conservative Judaism Balance

You know those movies that tell multiple independent stories and then bring them together at the end? There’s a teenage romance, a community golf tournament, and a jewelry store that’s filing for bankruptcy. It’s not until the last third of the movie that you find out the teenage boy’s family owns the jewelry store, and the teenage girl’s grandfather is a retired pro golfer who rescues the other family by buying the jewelry store and turning it into a golf shop. This sounds like a ridiculous all-over-the-map storyline . . . until you hear what happens in this week’s parshah.

Our parshah this week, Pinchas, 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 that 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.

Looking individually at each of these events, they might seem disparate. Looking at the text as a whole, they actually are tied together by a search for balance in the Israelite nation.  Pinchas reacts to the idolatry out of anger, allowing his emotions to get the best of him and his rage to take over.  For this reason, the commentators teach that the yud in his name is written smaller than the other letters because by acting rashly he diminished God’s name.  However, Pinchas is appointed a priest, a designation which requires responsibility and an even-tempered leadership, helping Pinchas balance his emotions.

By reading the situation and speaking up at the right time, the daughters of Zelophechad have their inheritance needs met. In doing so, they are able to strike a unique balance between tradition and modernity, one of the first instances of this in the Torah.

Joshua is described as Ruach Elohim, the spirit of God.  As the incoming leader, he is calm and gentle, and just as Moshe needed Aaron to balance out his insecurities, Joshua will serve as the counterbalance to Pinchas.

Finally, we receive instruction about the variety of sacrifices we are to make for holidays and Rosh Hodesh.  Each instance where we learn about how to distinguish our celebratory times is a reminder to find balance between work and play.

Is the idea of striking an appropriate balance sound familiar? The balance depicted in Pinchas isn’t just a message for the Israelites; it’s also a guiding principle of conservative Judaism. The USCJ’s vision statement invites us to create a “dynamic Judaism that is learned and passionate, authentic and pluralistic, joyful and accessible, egalitarian and traditional.”  There’s balance across the board.

May each of us this Shabbat discover new ways to strike the right balance in our lives. That’s how our myriad stories will come together.