Numbers 25:19 to 30:1
This portion discusses two different issues that faced Moses … and are still major issues in our day. First, zealotry… Pinchas is rewarded for killing two people engaged in an act against God…. Second, five women speak up for women’s rights as they challenge the laws of inheritance before God and Moses.
Pinchas, the zealot ….
The parsha begins with a description of the reward Pinchas received and why…. “The Eternal One spoke to Moses saying, Phinehas (Pinchas), son of Eleazar son of Aaron, the priest, has turned back My wrath from the Israelites by displaying among them his passion for Me, so that I did not wipe out the Israelite people in My passion. Say, therefore, ‘I grant him My pact of friendship. It shall be for him and his descendants after him a pact of priesthood for all time, because he took impassioned action for his God, thus making expiation for the Israelites.” (Numbers 25:10-3)
It appears that Pinchas is rewarded for his action of killing two people as they were in the midst of a sexual act in or near the Tent of Meetings. This action, and the reward of priesthood, raises all kinds of questions. Is killing justified in specific cases? … Should it be rewarded? …. Can an individual kill others because it seems to be the proper action?
Are the contemporary terrorists (or freedom fighters) the same as Pinchas? … If a person views abortion as a religious or Biblical crime, is killing an acceptable solution?
By looking closely at the story of Pinchas and some associated commentary we may obtain some perspective on why Pinchas was rewarded … and why his actions were different than the terrorists and abortion killers of today.
The story of Pinchas begins in last week’s parsha Balak.… While the Israelites were on their way to Canaan, they stopped at a city called Shittim. Here “the menfolk profaned themselves by whoring with the Moabite women, who invited the menfolk to the sacrifices for their god. The menfolk partook of them and worshiped that god.” The Eternal was incensed and spoke to Moses saying: “Take all the ringleaders and have them publicly impaled before the Eternal, so that the Eternal’s wrath may turn away from Israel.’ So Moses said to Israel’s officials, ‘Each of you slay those of his men who attached themselves to Baal-peor (the foreign god).’”
As Moses was speaking, an Israelite man brought a Midianite woman to his companions, in sight of Moses and the entire community. The man and Midianite woman proceeded into a private chamber for a sexual encounter. Pinchas saw this… took a spear … and followed the two into the chamber … and killed them.
The text continues: “Those who died of the plague numbered twenty-four thousand.” (Numbers 25:1-9) It is assumed the plague resulted from the actions of the whoring menfolk.
Rabbi Tony Bayfield, (Head of Movement for Reform Judaism in Britain and professor at Leo Baeck College, London) cites factors that make Pinchas different from other zealots. First, the killing was while the offenders were actually committing the crime… There was no question of guilt or innocence. Second, Pinchas was following the direct instructions of both God and Moses… (See the bolded passages in the above quote.)
Next, Rabbi Bayfield points out that, as stated in the opening quote to these comments, Pinchas was not rewarded for the killings; but, for stopping the plague which had killed twenty-four thousand people. (The Modern Men’s Torah Commentary, Edited by Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin, p.233-9)
So the question changes … from: Is this killing wrong? … to … How should one respond to a command from God? ….. or … Is the killing justified to save the community? (In this case; or, in the case of warfare?)
The Daughters of Aelphehad and Women’s Rights ….
Another section of this week’s parsha that relates to current events is one of women’s rights. Five women, the daughters of Zelphehad, asked Moses for the right of inheritance of their father’s property. He had no sons, who would have claimed the inheritance, only the five daughters. The importance of this case is highlighted by the fact that all five of the women are named… Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah ,and Tirzah. As noted in the past, very few women in Torah are actually named.
Moses brought the case before the Eternal who stated that the women should receive the inheritance…. This acted to keep property within a family and clan. In a following parsha, the law is amended to state that the daughters must marry within their tribe. This kept the balance of land ownership as originally decreed by God. (Num. 27:1-11) This was very significant because women were officially brought into the inheritance process which was totally male dominated.
As significant as this ruling was, it didn’t create the first opportunity for women to share the wealth. Jewish tradition, even at this early time, didn’t leave women in poverty upon the death of a husband or father. Rabbi Pamela Wax (Jewish chaplain at Goldwater Memorial Hospital, New York City) pointed out that, even at this time, there were two other factors allowed women to a share of the family wealth. First, every daughter was given a dowry which was generally understood by Jewish Law to have been a substitute for an inheritance. In fact, some rabbis became concerned that this dowry could make a daughter the de facto heiress. To prevent this, the rabbis created explicit monetary limits to the dowry that would not disenfranchise sons from their rightful inheritance.
In cases where the sons received the inheritance, maintenance allowances were established for the widow and any unmarried daughters. In some cases, these allowances substantially reduced or eliminated any inheritance to the sons.
Where a father wanted to pass property to a daughter instead of a son, it was also accomplished through gifts while the father was alive.
Under the influence of Roman and Greek law the concept of wills began. At first the Rabbis were against the concept because they saw wills as a transgression of their inheritance law which was against any willed or gifted property to other than legal heirs. Part of the eventual acceptance of wills came from the new value of kavod ha-met, “honor for the dead” which stated: A dead man’s request should be fulfilled as a religious duty. This was deemed one of the highest of Jewish values because one acts on behalf of another without expectation of reward in return (Gittin 14b-15a). (The Women’s Torah Commentary, edited by Rabbi Elyse Goldstein, p. 307-14)
…. Interesting to note…. While women’s inheritance law is not debated today … Both the issues of zealotry and women’s rights are still major areas of conflict and debate.