Pinhas: Putting Moav Behind, Getting Ready for the Land

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

This week’s portion opens with Pinhas’ reward for his role in stopping the plague of last week’s parsha, brought on by the Jews’ falling for Midianite women and worshipping their god, and then Zimri publicly challenging Moshe on the matter.

The Atonement of the Nation

The Torah says Pinhas had been mechaper the people, 25;13, a verb we usually take to mean “atoned.” Last time, we saw Ramban’s view Gd eventually punished the people who worshipped Pe’or, so the kapparah here would seem to apply to the other Jews, the ones who would have been killed by the plague despite not having worshipped.

We might most easily assume he was following the view of R. Yosef, Baba Kamma 60a, once Gd permits destructive forces to enter the world to punish evildoers, they do not distinguish whom they affect. It’s an idea I’ve said that way many times, but if we think about it, we realize it raises concerns of justice and fairness (would Gd really allow random death and destruction to the undeserving because others did deserve it?); in this instance, it also seems to make what Pinhas did less inspiring—for Ramban, we might be left to say he saved only those who had not done anything wrong. We don’t usually think of kapparah as protecting from undeserved punishment.

I prefer to assume Ramban ascribed some guilt to all the people. Not enough to incur the plague, enough to require atonement to immunize them from it. Were Ramban to have understood R. Yosef to mean the destructive forces punish also those who approved, or those who should have objected and didn’t, Pinhas was atoning for those who were guilty in a practical, meaningful way.

(Ramban could say it about Pinhas without going as far as to say R. Yosef meant that, too, because R. Yosef refers to the destructive forces hurting tzaddikim, righteous ones. Still, it relieves some of the tension about random injustice in the world. And if by tzaddikim he meant only those who are righteous in terms of this punishment being laid out for them in particular, it all works.).

Ramban also says Gd had Moshe announce Pinhas’ reward, as well as stress whom he had killed, to show that great actions received great rewards. We know the action was great only because of he dared to kill powerful people to save the others. But their power only mattered if Pinhas had to worry about allies standing up for them or taking revenge on him. It supports my idea, these others might not have sinned themselves but they certainly were comfortable with it, to the extent of defending those committing it.

How the Midianites Hurt Themselves

None of Pinhas’ heroics would have been necessary had the Midianites not instigated the incident. Rashi twice notes how low they sank. When the verse identifies Cazbi (Zimri’s consort) as the daughter of one of the kings of Midian, 25;15, he points out the Midianites sank so low as to send their princesses as part of the operation.

Three verses later, when Gd tells Moshe to have the Jews avenge the Midianites’ deceit, Rashi focuses on their having drafted their daughters to engage in promiscuity, to draw the Jews after Pe’or. Their hatred of the Jews, their desire to protect themselves from the assumed invasion, led them to mistreat their own kin.

It backfired, because Gd commands the Jews tzaror, to treat the Midianites as enemies. Rashi picks up on the verb’s being expressed as a continuing present, the Jews were being told to think continuously of the Midianites as enemies.

The Midianites thought they were protecting themselves and ended up making it worse, according to Rashi.

Rashi’s Way to Apportion the Land

The incident seems to have been the last of the old business of the generation of the desert. The parsha moves on to preparing for the entry to Israel, starting with an enumeration of the people, to see how many had survived the plague and also because these were the ones who would inherit the Land.

The Torah lays out the inheritance with seemingly contradictory rules. One verse (26;54) says to apportion the Land according to numbers, larger groups receiving more, smaller groups less. Rashi thinks the Land was split into twelve parts already, by monetary value rather than size, portions larger or smaller to fit with larger or smaller tribes.

We might therefore think who got which section was a foregone conclusion, Rashi thinks they had a lottery nonetheless (as the Torah says they should), but seemingly only to show Gd agreed. In his view, the names of tribes were to be put in one lot, portions in another, and Elazar, wearing the Urim ve-Tumim, would announce ahead of time which portion of Land would come out to correspond to which tribe.

The next verse added another twist. It says to divide the Land lishmot matot avotam, by the names of the tribes of their forefathers. Rashi takes the reference to forefathers to mean the ones who left Egypt. A man who left Egypt with one son and another with three, we would think the one son of the first would receive the same as the total of the other three, the exact opposite of the idea of giving more Land to more populous groups.

Rashi thinks all three factors shaped the split. A larger tribe would get more, and the shares for the tribe would be divided among the people who were about to go into Israel. Once the tribe’s share had been set up, however, it would be reapportioned according to how many of them had left Egypt. For the one son/three sons example, that group would receive four portions of the Land that would then be divided in two between them. The one son of the first man would end up receiving two of the four shares and the three sons of the other would receive two-thirds of a share.

This is obviously not “fair” in the usual sense of the word; Rashi does not explain why Gd would want the Land divided this way. When I first presented this Rashi years ago, I suggested (and I still like the idea), Rashi would say Gd wanted the split of the Land to reflect both situations, those who left Egypt and those who arrived in Israel.

Originally, the two were supposed to be the same. When the sins of the dor ha-midbar, the generation of the desert, denied them entry, the look of Israel changed as well. As for fairness, when Gd is involved, I believe there is an implicit promise Gd can give more than enough to all who merit, regardless of how much physical land they have.

Ramban’s Split of the Land, Unequal Only Within Families

Ramban takes a starkly different path. He says the tribes all received equal shares, an idea that explains the lottery system better, because it was not clear before who would get which parcel. He also thinks the Torah gave the numbers of the tribes after listing all the families within those tribes because the Land would be given equally to each family. A family in the tribe of Shim’on would receive more land than a family within the tribe of Yehudah, because the latter had more people.

Division by numbers of members happened only within a family, he says. Once each family clan (beit av) had received the same as the others in that tribe (and the tribe had gotten the same as any other), larger families would get more.

His view has the strength of justifying the lottery, the weakness of leading to much more inequality in how much Land people got. With fairness again in the hands of Gd, I believe Ramban would have said the higher value here was dividing the Land among tribes, each equally represented in the Land, despite minimizing almost to insignificance the Torah’s idea of la-rav tarbeh miknato, giving more of the Land to the more populous. For Ramban, it happened only within family clans, whose shares were more dependent on the size of their tribe and the number of family clans within the tribe.

The two views are struggling with which of the Torah’s prescriptions to emphasize. Rashi takes more seriously the Torah’s desire for larger tribes to have larger shares, so that overall shares were roughly equal, with the twist of deciding shares by combining the legacy of Egypt’s numbers with those of the ones entering Israel. Ramban focuses more on the lottery determining who got what, which only works if all the shares were the same.

All, of course, affecting how we understand the message of taking over the Land, what the size of portions said about what Gd wanted to communicate in setting up the Jewish people in their Land.

From Sin, Success

The Torah makes a particular point of the daughters of Tzlofchad’s appeal to take their father’s share in the Land. Their stated concern was the loss of their father’s share in the Land, to me evidence they understood the stakes here were more than financial, it was becoming part of the permanent legacy of the Jewish people.

Rashi to 27;5 gives two reasons Moshe had to take their request to Gd to verify the law. First, he says this was Moshe’s comeuppance for his earlier overly confident instruction to judges to bring hard cases to him and he would rule on them. To tweak Moshe for his certainty he would know the answers, Gd sent one he did not. Or, the daughters of Tzlofchad earned the right to have this section of the Torah, this set of ideas, said in their name, because of their dedicated pursuit of their father’s honor.

Whether they secured their place in history because Moshe made room for them with his overreach or carved it on their own, Rashi and Ramban think they present their question with great sensitivity. They assure Moshe their father died for his sins so he not think they had been part of Korah’s rebellion and lost his share in the Land, per Rashi.

Ramban thinks more than enough people died in the desert (a whole generation) for Moshe to need not suspect their father had lost his share. He thinks they brought up Korah because Moshe had been personally hurt by that rebellion, would have been disinclined to assist any relative of any member of the group. They were making clear they did not fall in that category.

Having shed the Midianites, the Jews are ready to take a share in the Land of Israel, with all the significance we attach to that.

About Gidon Rothstein

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