Posts Tagged ‘Pinchas’

Confidence, or boasting?

Sunday, July 4th, 2010

Pinchas - Confidence, or boasting?
Art by Maggidah Shoshannah Brombacher, Ph.D.
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Pinchas: Numbers 25:10-30:1

"And Moses brought their cause…" (Numbers 27:5)

There are standards and strategies for the traditional interpretation of Scripture. For example, if two verses seem to contradict each other, than a way must be found to make both opinions correct. Such a paradigm leads to significant theological development: what is it about G!d’s creation that opposites can both be true?

Another standard is that the heroes of our stories should be seen in a positive light whenever possible. One of my favorite examples of this is the Talmudic epithet, "If that were so, then Moses was a prophet!" What the text really means is the opposite: If that were true, then the world would be so upside down that he wasn’t a prophet. But so great is the unwritten sanction that the Talmud won’t even say that explicitly, in fear that it could be taken out of context.

All of which is background for this week’s midrash, which says some unusual things about Moses, and in so doing teaches a powerful message – or two!

The context is the daughters of Zelophehad, who have brought a question about property rights following the death of their father who had no sons as offspring. Instead of answering them himself, Moses brings the question to G!d. Listen:

Some hold that the law was hidden from Moses. There are cases where righteous men have boasted of some matter connected with a precept and the Holy One, blessed be He, weakened their power. You find that David boasts: Thy statutes have been my songs (Ps. 119:54), as much as to say that they are easy and familiar like songs. Said the Holy One, blessed be He: ‘By your life! You will in the end err in a matter that children read in the Scripture!’ When he brought up the ark he erred and put it on a cart; as it says, And they set the ark of God upon a new cart (II Sam. 6:3). The ark suspended itself in the air and the cows beneath it slipped. Uzzah drew near to support it, And God smote him there for his error. And David was displeased, because the Lord had broken forth upon Uzzah (ib. 7,8). The Holy One, blessed be He, said to him: ‘Did you not say, "Thy statutes have been my songs"?’

It was the same with Moses. Because he had boasted: The cause that is too hard for you ye shall bring unto me, and I will hear it (Deut. 1:17), G!d diminished his mental powers. Moses had said: ‘The cause that is too hard for you ye shall bring unto me.’ When the daughters of Zelophehad, however, came, He concealed the law from him, and Moses brought their cause before the Lord. The daughters of Zelophehad speak right (27:7). This, He meant, is the law! The Holy One, blessed be He, said to him: ‘Did you not say, "The cause that is too hard for you ye shall bring unto me"? The law with which you are unacquainted is decided by the women!’

Midrash Rabbah – Numbers XXI:12

The plain message is clear: the reason that Moses brought the case before G!d was that he was being punished for boasting about his powers of judgment. And, in a twist that must be read in the context its time for its true wry humor, even women have better powers of judgment than he!

So at one level, we must be wary of becoming boastful, even if we’re not particularly concerned about cows flying as a result of our self-promotion. But why is this lesson taught with such power and emphasis, using Moses as the target for punishment and ridicule, he who is normally exempt from such midrashic vehicles?

The lesson goes to the heart of the laws regarding lashon hara, or evil speech: gossip. The "what" of these laws is easy to understand, but can be difficult to practice: don’t speak in a way that might cause another to be harmed or embarassed, even if what you are saying is true. The rationale for this law, however, is both deep and sweet.

When we bring shame to another, it is not merely that we have harmed another of G!d’s creatures. When we tell the story of the foolish person who did "x, y, z" – even if that person is completely anonymous! – we are disparaging the work of the Holy One’s creative efforts. Why? Because by saying a creation is flawed, we disparage the Creator.

And if we are to follow the theological imperative that we must find a way for opposites to be held as both correct, then surely we must find a way to find the beauty in the creative act that is every human being. Now, I can hear the arguers ready to raise the extreme cases of truly evil people, but to that I say, let it rest.

Think about the bulk of humanity, and how we speak of them and treat them. Let us find a way to honor the Creator in our daily lives by finding the beauty in all those creative acts, no matter how confusing or befuddling they might appear to be!

Then, Moses will be known to be as wise as women, who are as wise as he – and you and me.

The Empty Sukkah

Tuesday, October 6th, 2009
Rabbi Pinchas of Koretz (1726-1791) was one of the two most significant disciples of the Baal Shem Tov (Besht). Along with the Maggid of Mezrich, he became one of the leaders of the Hassidic movement after the Besht’s death.
His was a powerful and, some might say, intimidating personality. In fact, he preferred solitary study, and frowned upon those who interrupted him. However, as time went by he became more and more well-known, and began to be besieged with disciples and supplicants. And as the numbers of seekers grew, so did his frustration. “All” he wanted was to be left alone to pray and study!
Finally, he hit upon an idea. He prayed to Heaven with great fervor that he should become unattractive, unpopular, downright repulsive to people. So strong was his prayer that it was granted: the supplicants stopped coming to him, and before long, whenever he walked down the street people would cross to the other side rather than encounter him.
R’ Pinchas was thrilled. He dove deeper and deeper into his prayer, meditation and study, and was almost invisible during the Ten Days of Awe.
Shortly thereafter, it was time to build his sukkah, the hut in which the observant live for the week of Sukkot. Normally, there would be a host of students to help – but not this year! No one even spoke to him about the holiday, let alone offer to him. Finally, he had to hire a non-Jew to help him build it, but it was hard to even find the materials, so reluctant were his neighbors to help.
“A small price,” he thought, “for the serenity of study.” And as sundown approached, he headed to the synagogue, for it is a requirement to invite and entertain guests in the sukkah. But no one in the congregation would speak to him, let alone be his guest for dinner – not even the poor and destitute!
Dejected, he made his way back home after services, taking some small consolation from the fact that he would be visited that night by the spirit of Abraham, our Father, the first of the Ushpizin – the seven mystical visitors who attend each of the seven evenings of Sukkot in the huts of the worthy. Arriving in the sukkah, he began chanting the ritual invitation.
But Abraham did not come.
He repeated the invitation, with greater intensity, but still nothing. Finally, after pouring his soul into a third cry – some say the boughs wept at his yearning – the spirit of Abraham appeared, but stood at a distance, unwilling to enter.
R’ Pinchas urged him to enter, but he stood there silently, unmoving. “Why won’t you enter? What have I done?” R’ Pinchas begged.
“Am I not renowned for my hospitality? Was not my tent open on all sides, to receive guests from all worlds? Where are your guests? How can I enter a place where there is no loving-kindness?”
R’ Pinchas’ eyes were opened: he immediately prayed that his former wishes be revoked, and that he should instead learn the lessons of Avraham Imeinu, Abraham our Father. Soon his reputation was restored, and he was sought out by even more supplicants than before. But now, R’ Pinchas understood that the way to learn Torah was not in isolation, but in loving community, and his wisdom continued to increase.

Rabbi Pinchas of Koretz (1726-1791) was one of the two most significant disciples of the Baal Shem Tov (Besht). Along with the Maggid of Mezrich, he became one of the leaders of the Hassidic movement after the Besht’s death.

His was a powerful and, some might say, intimidating personality. In fact, in his early days he preferred solitary study, and frowned upon those who interrupted him. However, as time went by he became more and more well-known, and began to be besieged with disciples and supplicants. And as the numbers of seekers grew, so did his frustration. “All” he wanted was to be left alone to pray and study!

Finally, he hit upon an idea. He prayed to Heaven with great fervor that he should become unattractive, unpopular, downright repulsive to people. So strong was his prayer that it was granted: the supplicants stopped coming to him, and before long, whenever he walked down the street people would cross to the other side rather than encounter him.

R’ Pinchas was thrilled. He dove deeper and deeper into his prayer, meditation and study, and was almost invisible during the Ten Days of Awe.

Shortly thereafter, it was time to build his sukkah, the hut in which the observant live for the week of Sukkot. Normally, there would be a host of students to help – but not this year! No one even spoke to him about the holiday, let alone offer to him. Finally, he had to hire a non-Jew to help him build it, but it was hard to even find the materials, so reluctant were his neighbors to help.

“A small price,” he thought, “for the serenity of study.” And as sundown approached, he headed to the synagogue, for it is a requirement to invite and entertain guests in the sukkah. But no one in the congregation would speak to him, let alone be his guest for dinner – not even the poor and destitute!

Dejected, he made his way back home after services, taking some small consolation from the fact that he would be visited that night by the spirit of Abraham, our Father, the first of the Ushpizin – the seven mystical visitors who attend each of the seven evenings of Sukkot in the huts of the worthy. Arriving in the sukkah, he began chanting the ritual invitation.

But Abraham did not come.

He repeated the invitation, with greater intensity, but still nothing. Finally, after pouring his soul into a third cry – some say the boughs wept at his yearning – the spirit of Abraham appeared, but stood at a distance, unwilling to enter.

R’ Pinchas urged him to enter, but he stood there silently, unmoving. “Why won’t you enter? What have I done?” R’ Pinchas begged.

“Am I not renowned for my hospitality? Was not my tent open on all sides, to receive guests from all worlds? Where are your guests? How can I enter a place where there is no loving-kindness?”

R’ Pinchas’ eyes were opened: he immediately prayed that his former wishes be revoked, and that he should instead learn the lessons of Avraham Imeinu, Abraham our Father. Soon his reputation was restored, and he was sought out by even more supplicants than before. But now, R’ Pinchas understood that the way to learn Torah was not in isolation, but in loving community, and his wisdom continued to increase.