Monday, February 17, 2020

No other weekly parsha is visited during the year as often as Pinchas, which is this week’s reading, at least in all those places within two week’s walking distance from Yerushalayim. Everyone else must save this message until next week. The good news is that the first group is larger than the latter, because for the first time in over 2,700 years the preponderance of Torah observant Jews live in Eretz Yisrael. But back to my point. Almost every time that we take out at least two sifrei Torah, one of them is set to Pinchas. On average, that’s 35 times a year (plus the four times we read it this week), then add three more for galut. No other parsha reaches half that number. So, you’d think that I’d be pretty confident that there’d be no surprises when discussing this week’s Torah reading. But you’d be wrong. I recently saw a comment which totally challenged my assumptions about Parshat Pinchas.

To begin, here’s my traditional vision of this parsha. Our reading opens with Pinchas getting a great reward (briti shalom) for being zealous on behalf of God, and ends with the long list of daily, weekly, monthly and annual communal sacrifices. I believe firmly that the Sages directed that these two sections must be read on the same Shabbat, because in our own lives we must be consistent and dependable, like the daily offerings (and tefilot). However, we must also be ready to act in totally radical behavior when there’s an emergency, as Pinchas himself did, the Sages wanted to juxtapose the normative with the extraordinary. 

Then I decided to check the commentary of Rabbeinu Bechaye (Rav Bachya ben Menachem, 1255-1340). He had a custom of introducing every parsha with a long commentary on a verse from Mishle. This comment would end by leading directly into his interpretations of the text. This week his verse is: The name of the Lord is a tower of power (Migdal Oz not to be confused with the R&B band or the TV transmitter in the Philippines), the righteous run to it and are protected (Mishlei 18:10).

Rabbeinu Bechaye explains that Shlomo Hamelech, in this verse, is teaching us about the character trait of faith (bitachon in God. For one with true bitachon feels ensconced in an impregnable fortress. The true tzadik finds safety and protection from the vicissitudes of life in bitachon.

King Solomon’s word for ‘safety’ is nisgav. This term implies more than ‘safety.’Most modern Israelis use to ‘wonderful,’ ‘superb’ or, perhaps, ‘sublime.’I’m not sure that Biblical Hebrew carries those connotations but I think it implies being in a really ‘good place.’

Migdal Oz is the name of a religious kibbutz and women’s yeshiva in Gush Etziyon. It sits next to a high point identified with Migdal Eider tower of the flock) from the story of where Yaakov Avinu went after he buried his beloved Rachel in Beit Lechem (Breishit 35:21). The place name is repeated in Malachi (4:8). Both names imply a sense of security, one for humans, the other for sheep.

Rabbeinu Bechaye continues his commentary with an examination of the term for ‘run,’ yarutz in the book of Mishlei. Elsewhere Shlomo Hamelech informs us that the tzadik runs without concern for stumbling (4:12). He is identifying the tzadik with bitachon. The confidence of the person of faith prevents ‘stumbling’ in both a literal and figurative sense.

The great commentary goes on to draw another conclusion about the faith personality. Such an individual feels exalted and uplifted, ‘since they are raised high in every circumstance, and are so described at every opportunity,’ He then goes on to describe these individuals as ‘tireless’, ‘they expend great effort without displaying exhaustion.’ These individuals of faith, therefore, excel in those mitzvot which require immense effort, like Torah study.

He concludes this long exposition by applying to Pinchas in his great demonstration of courage and zeal when he executed Zimri and Kosbi for their public denigration of God’s honor. Sanctifying God’s Name publicly requires this great reservoir of bitachon, , described by Shlomo Hamelech.

This powerful essay by Rabbeinu Bechaye got me to thinking about the rest of the parsha. After a new census before entering the Land, our reading has two fascinating stories. The first is the request for land by the daughters of Zelofchad; the second is the transition of power to Yehoshua. Both of these episodes display a self-confidence which must be rooted in bitachon.

The confidence of Machla, Noa, Hogla, Milka and Tirtza, I believe, is firmly rooted in a bitachon that God is yasher, perfectly fair. The mere fact that their names are listed here and repeated at the end of Bamidbar proofs their outstanding stature in our tradition. Earlier in Bamidbar, a group requests an exception to Torah rules in the case of making up the inability to bring a Paschal Lamb on the 14th of Nissan. This group was granted their requested, but unlike these righteous women their names are withheld from the Torah.

Then we have the case of Yehoshua. Here the bitachon had a dual nature, displayed by both parties. This same Yehoshua who was zealous for Moshe’s honor 39 years earlier (11:28-29), accepts this great burden without any protest. And Moshe was told to place ‘a hand on him (27:11)’. However, in the event, he boldly ‘places both hands (verse 23)’ upon his student and successor.

Finally, our parsha ends with the long list of regularly occurring communal sacrifices, which we have replaced with communal prayer. Keeping these appointed times requires a remarkable level of steadfastness. This is also the ‘running without stumbling’ referred to by Rabbeinu Bechaye as a sign of immense bitachon.

This giant of rabbinic commentaries has, I think, enlightened us to a remarkable vision of our parsha. Shlomo Hamelech’s observation about achieving sublime spiritual serenity through bitachon applies to all these amazing characters in our parsha. May we be inspired by their example.

By Rabbi David Walk


Rabbi David Walk, who has recently made aliyah, was a teacher at the Bi-Cultural Day school as well as Congregation Agudath Sholom’s education director. He continues to be a tireless teacher and educator. For over 30 years, he has taught students from third grade and up and conducted many classes for teens and adults. Prior to joining CAS, he served as director and teacher at Yeshivat Hamivtar in Efrat, Israel.


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