By Joy Scott, Am Haskalah Congregant
Last week’s Torah parsha, Balak, was fanciful, surreal and ended in tragedy when thousands of Israelites lost their lives as a consequence of being lured into illicit relations with the Moabite women.
Parsha Pinchas transitions to more serious themes, which include not just a diverse set of narratives, but also different genres of material. The parsha begins with the explosive story of Pinchas (Moses’ great-nephew) who witnesses an act of immorality being committed between Zimri (Prince of the tribe of Shimon) and Kozbi (Midianite Princess). Pinchas takes swift action at eliminating these two people, subsequently ending the plague which God had imposed as punishment. Pinchas is rewarded by God for his heroic act: “It shall be for him and his descendants an eternal covenant of the Kohanim”(1).
God then commanded Moses to take another census of each tribe, so that the inherited land could be proportionately distributed. Amid this process, Moses is interrupted by the five daughters of Zelophehad (descendants of Joseph). Each of these women stood before Moses and the entire congregation, saying: “Our father died in the desert and he had no sons; why should our father’s name be eliminated from his family because he had no male children?(2). Moses brought their case before God who responded affirmatively to their request: “The plea of Zelophehad daughters is just”(3).
Moses decided that the timing was favorable to ask God about the future of his own two sons (i.e., Gerson, Eliezer). It was his profound desire that one of his sons would be selected as his successor, for both the honor and the heritage.
The Midrash suggests that God and Moses engaged in a protracted conversation, pertaining to the issue of Moses’ successor(4). God reminded Moses that Joshua always served Moses selflessly in the desert and “would not depart from his tent”(5)
Of even more significance to learning the Torah, Joshua also aided Moses in teaching its nuances and significance. The sons of Moses may have studied Torah, but apparently did not pass on their acquired knowledge to others.
In Judaism, “one who learns the Torah and does not teach has degraded the Word of God”(6). Furthermore, Joshua had distinguished himself as a warrior in a time when the Israelites were vulnerable to attack(8).
Moses was palpably disappointed as God cited each rationale for the selection of Joshua to succeed him in lieu of either of his sons.
Nevertheless, despite the absence of a ‘presumptive heir’ to Moses’ position, his legacy as the most sublime, eminent teacher and leader has survived over thousands of years.
(1) NUMBERS (25:13)
(2) NUMBERS (27:3-4)
(3) NUMBERS (27:7)
(4) Bambidar Rabba (21:14)
(5) EXODUS (33:11)
(6) Sanhedrin (15:31)