A SPEAR IN HIS HAND – Pinkhas – Num. 25:10-30:1 — by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

A SPEAR IN HIS HAND – Pinkhas – Num. 25:10-30:1 — by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

At the end of last week’s Torah reading we saw a priest named Pinkhas take a spear in his hand and kill both an Israelite tribal prince and the Midianite sacred prostitute he was showing off – thus halting the orgies and the resulting epidemic that was raging in the camp.

This week’s reading opens with Moses receiving the Divine word to award Pinkhas “My covenant of peace. He and his progeny will have a covenant of eternal priesthood because he was jealous for his G-d and he atoned for the people of Israel.”

By his act of violence, does Pinkhas earn permanent High Priesthood for himself and his descendants? He was not carrying out a legal execution. The couple he killed, Zimri and the woman named Cozbi, never went to trial. They flaunted their violation. All the Israelites saw them enter the tent together. And all saw Pinkhas run them through, right through the tent.

Of all the major characters in Biblical literature, Pinkhas ranks with the most controversial. Rashi and other commentators recount that the tribes ridiculed him, considering him as lacking any right to take the law into his own hands and kill a tribal leader like Zimri. Maybe he should be tried for murder! How could such a violent crime qualify him for the priesthood?

The opening line of this week’s portion identifies Pinkhas as the son of Elazar and therefore grandson of Aaron, which already makes him a priest, a cohen. But Elazar’s wife, Pinkhas’ mother, was the daughter of Jethro, a heathen priest who in Rashi’s words “fattened cows [to slaughter] for idolatry.” So if Pinkhas’ father could marry a woman who was not born Jewish, what gives Pinkhas the right to execute Zimri for cohabiting with a heathen woman? Negative opinions about Pinkhas continue through the writings of subsequent commentators including Sifsey Khakhomim, Klee Yokor etc., all the way to Maimonides, the famous Rambam. He states that the law permits a “zealot” to kill a Jew who is having intercourse with a non-Jewish woman, even though a bet din (a Jewish court) cannot give him permission to do so. The reason for this ruling concerns the possible offspring of that couple. If the birth results from a forbidden relationship between two Jews, as when they are not legally married to each other, the baby will be a mamzer (illegitimate) but will still be a Jew, and will be identified as the Jewish father’s son or daughter. But in the case of a non-Jewish woman who gives birth, her baby is not a Jew at all, and “is not considered to be [the Jewish father’s] son…”.

And yet, this Torah portion that bears his name asserts that through his violent action Pinkhas turned G-d’s anger away from the people Israel.

Or did he? Psalm 106 tells the story a little differently. “Pinkhas stood and prayed,” says the Psalm, “and the plagued ceased.” Was King David, author of the Psalms, taking liberties with the facts in order to elevate the reputation of Pinkhas? Is Pinkhas really such a hero? He killed two defenseless people.

Was it prayer or was it murder? Or was it something else, something unique? Maybe Pinkhas carried out an act of affirmation, a violent and shocking act to be sure, but an extreme act made vital by an extreme situation. Maybe he saw a need no one else could see, a need for a nation to be shocked. They did not seem to realize that Midian was their enemy, with the false prophet Balaam plotting their destruction and actually causing the infection and death of some 24,000 Israelite victims of the disease contracted from the Midianite women. Only next week will we read about the military campaign that defeated Midian and killed Balaam. Pinkhas is there too, but he is not the leader of the campaign. More like an enlisted man. His father Elazar is the army chaplain. But without Pinkhas and his spear, would the battle of Midian ever be fought?

An extreme story, yet one to remember. The goal of many a war is peace. World War 1 was supposed to make the world safe for democracy, so in World War 2 we used to wisecrack that we were fighting to make the world safe for peace. Sorry, folks. That didn’t happen. Ink on the peace treaties of 1945 was scarcely dry before Arab armies attacked the new State of Israel in ’48, Communist forces fought their way to ruling China in ’49, and other conflicts followed. We know them and their victims all too well.

And yet, Pinkhas and his sudden violence did save his people from an immediate threat. There are situations where nothing else works. Not diplomacy, not negotiations, not even prayer. He “turned back [Divine] anger from the people of Israel” with a brutal but courageous attack. He shocked his people into action, and gave his name to this week’s Sedrah – as well as to countless Jewish boys throughout the centuries. We don’t name our sons Balaam, or Cain or Adonijah (David’s spoiled son). But young Pinky’s abound.

Sometimes extreme situations need extreme action.

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BALAAM and HATRED – Balak – Num. 22:2 – 25:9, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

BALAAM and HATRED – Balak – Num. 22:2 – 25:9, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

A Moabite king named Balak fears a possible invasion by the Israelite forces who are camped nearby. They just fought and defeated the forces of Emor and Bashan, so he feels he needs some supernatural help. He sends a message to a sorcerer, Balaam son of Beor, and asks him to curse Israel. “Perhaps [then] I will be able to strike them and drive them out of the land.”

Apparently Balak was not aware of the fact that Balaam believes in G-d, so he and his curses – and his blessings – are subject to Divine rule. So after spending the night at Balaam’s house, the royal messengers get a polite refusal. During that night, Balaam got the orders from on High: Don’t go with them, don’t curse Israel, because Israel is blessed.

Of course, Balak is not ready to give up. He sends his messengers back again, this time with a promise of royal gifts to Balaam in exchange for the curse. Again, they sleep over. Again, Balaam gets the Divine orders: all right, go with them, but you will speak only the words I put in your mouth.

Now comes the famous talking donkey sequence. En route to the mountain from where he will see the Israelite camp, Balaam is faced with a Divine messenger who threatens his life – not once, but 3 times. He cannot see the threat, but his donkey can, and saves him first by going off the road into the field, a second time by squashing his leg against a fence, and the last time – lacking any way around the threat – by squatting under Balaam. Each time, Balaam strikes the donkey. Finally she opens her mouth and challenges him:

“What did I do to you, that you hit me now three times?”

Apparently not surprised to hear the donkey speaking, Balaam rages:

“You embarrassed me. If I had a sword in my hand I would kill you.”

“Am I not your donkey that you rode all your life? Did I ever do this to you before?”

“No.” And suddenly, Balaam’s eyes are opened and he sees the armed angel in front of him. He jumps down and bows to the ground in front of the angel. Now the angel speaks:

“Why did you beat your donkey, now three times? Look, I came out to prevent you from continuing a wrong journey. The donkey saw me and turned away. Otherwise, I would have killed you and kept the donkey alive.”

Now wait a minute. Why was this a wrong journey? Didn’t G-d tell Balaam to go with Balak’s men – even if he would be able to speak only G-d’s words?

Balaam’s motivation is suspect. Did he go because of the wealth Balak promised him this time? Or was there another reason?

Our commentators point to a line in one of Balaam’s prophecies to answer that question. Balak asked for a curse with the Hebrew word arah. Balaam used the word kabohcondemn. It appears even in the blessing he pronounces as he views the Israelite camp:

From the mountains of the East, Balak brought me, saying “Come curse Jacob for me… How can I curse one whom G-d has not cursed? How can I condemn one whom the Eternal has not condemned?… Who has counted the dust of Jacob, or numbered the multitude of Israel? Let me die the death of the righteous, and let my end be like his!

Rashi says this indicates that Balaam hated Israel more than Balak did. Balak just wanted the Israelites out of his country. Balaam wanted them out of the world. Not just extradition. Extermination.

The Klee Yokor commentary takes an opposite view of those two words. But the riddle remains: who hates Israel more?

Among our enemies ever since Balak and Balaam, there would seem to be an ongoing rivalry. Who hated Israel more, Chmelnitzky or Hitler? Who hates us more now, Khamenei or Abbas? Barack Obama or David Duke? Or maybe the trophy should go to the Jewish traitor, Soros?

If nothing else, the commentators’ contest for hatred highlights the effect of Balaam’s extravagant blessings. Did he really mean a word of it?

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LOSING AND REMEMBERING – Khukas – Num. 19:1—22:1, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

LOSING AND REMEMBERING – Khukas – Num. 19:1—22:1, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

All through this reading we will find the imminence and effect of losing treasured people. First it is Miriam who dies. We read simply that she dies and gets buried. We don’t know who buried her, or what kind of mourning the people did. But we know they felt her loss. In her honor, says our Midrash, a miraculous well followed the Israelite people all through their 40 years in the desert. As soon as she died, they had no water to drink. That’s what they complained about.

Soon thereafter, they lose Aaron. He and his son Elazar climb the mountain, he gives Elazar his priestly robe, and his life ends. He is buried on the mountain, and the people mourn him for 30 days.

Why 30 days? Significantly, we will read no law about 30 days of mourning. Yet we still observe it. Granted, it is now just the first of 11 months of Kaddish, but the first month is the deepest, starting with the week of shiva when the mourners traditionally stay at home, and refrain from work or other regular activities while they accept sympathy calls, praying and repeating the Kaddish with the friends who help them form a minyan; then proceeding through the rest of the 30 days when it is customary not to visit the grave or to partake in entertainment. Aaron was a great man in our history, but memorializing him took no different form from how we honor each of our departed ever since. As we will read in Deuteronomy, Moses himself was also mourned by the entire people for 30 days.

Dealing with death is difficult. No law we can write or even understand limits any one lifetime. Human beings live and die by a decree we cannot know.

Personally I find this week particularly difficult since I just lost a family member who shared much of these last 8 decades. His name was David Cohen. Besides being a successful engineer, mayor of his town, fellow vet of WW2, lifelong Yankee fan, devoted husband and father, and a man with a great sense of humor, was my first cousin. For most of our years we lived in different places, but we had our Bar Mitzvah services in the same shul – he in 1937 and I in 1939! Of all the 30-some cousins in our generation, we were the two still alive. Now he has left us. But I am not alone. The good memories we shared still bless my life. Because I can say of him as we do in reverence: Zikhrono liv’rakha – His memory is to be a blessing.

All we can do for those we love while they are with us, is to help them live. After that, we can honor good people’s memories as we have always done — from the heart.

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REBELLIONS OLD AND NEW – KORAKH – Num. 16-18 – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

REBELLIONS OLD AND NEW – KORAKH – Num. 16-18 – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

This week, we will read the story of a revolution. A revolution that failed. Not the first such revolt in our history, it was nevertheless a threat to the leaders and the entire structure of the Israelite nation in the desert. Its leader, a Levite named Korakh, came a good deal closer to success than the most recent wouldbe revolutionary in our experience, one Bernie Sanders. Unlike him, although Korakh came to a dismal end, he earned a place in Jewish history that lasted all these centuries.

Korakh and Moses shared a grandfather, namely Kehas, the oldest son of Levi, Jacob’s third son. Also Korakh was wealthy, ambitious, and deeply jealous of his cousins Moses and Aaron. Why should they be the Leader and the High Priest? Why not he? Setting out to displace them, he gathered support among other ambitious and impatient tribesmen – some 250 of them, in fact. Included were not only fellow Levites but also three prominent members of the tribe of Reuben, who felt that as descendants of the oldest son of Jacob they should have the authority. These 250 rebels are described in the Torah as anshey shem – well known people. They did not consider themselves the disinherited, or the proletariat, or the downtrodden. These men already had some power. And wanted more.

Who else joined them? Their families. Wives, children, other relatives, all followed the lead of Korakh and his fellow Levites. First, they stage a protest. Gathering together to face Moses and Aaron publicly, they voice their challenge: “Rav lokhem – Enough for you! Aren’t we all holy people, with G-d among us? Why do you lift yourselves up?” In other words, do you have the right to be boss? At this point, Moses falls on his face as if to express a desperate hope for Divine guidance.

After all, this is fourth in a series of rebellions of one kind or another. Moses is out of patience. He puts Korakh and company to a test. Since they focus their rebellion on Aaron and the priesthood – as the religious symbol of authority – Moses uses tomorrow morning’s incense offering as the test.

“What is Aaron, that you murmur against him?” asks Moses. It’s easy to see that pagan peoples also offered incense. They had many idols, many altars, and hundreds of priests. The Israelites had one G-d, one altar, and one high priest. And here come 250 men who all want to be high priests! So the Midrash explains, Moses offers Korakh an attractive test: take the incense, the most prestigious of offerings. But bear in mind that this incense contains a deadly poison. This is the offering that already caused the death of two of Aaron’s sons. And recognize that Ho-ish asher yivkhar haShem hu hakadosh – “the one G-d chooses, he is holy.” Take warning that one offering will be accepted, and all whose offerings are not accepted will die. According to the Midrash, Korakh had advance knowledge that he would have important descendants, including the prophet Samuel, so he assumed that he would certainly be chosen. He accepts Moses’ conditions.

Now Moses sends for two of the Reubenite rebels, Dathan and Aviram, to negotiate with them. They refuse to come. They are stubborn enough to follow Korakh’s lead.

Originally there was a third Reubenite involved, named On ben Peles. He is suddenly out of the story. The Midrash supplies the reason: On did not continue with the rebellion, did not participate in the trial by fire, and he survived. Why? Because his wife convinced him to break away from Korakh. With a true Yiddishe kop, she points out that he would just be exchanging one boss, Moses, for another boss, Korakh. What does he need that for?

Morning comes, and the firepans are brought to the Tabernacle. Aaron brings his offering and it is accepted. Korakh and his followers approach, and suddenly fall into a huge crack in the ground – as if the earth opened its mouth “vativla osom v’es boteyhem — and swallowed them and their houses!” All the people take flight, hearing their cries as they dropped living into the pit!

Impossible? Couldn’t happen? Or could it? Do we see it on TV today, when sinkholes suddenly open without warning? Or when earthquakes crack and split the ground? Perhaps the most picturesque comment on the story of Korakh is another story told by Rabbah bar bar Khonnoh, a rabbi in the Talmud, known for his tall tales. He says: “I was travelling in the desert, and an Arab took me to a spot where there was a crack in the ground. I bent down and put my ear to the crack. And I heard the voices of Korakh and his followers, calling out: “Moses and his Torah are true, and we are liars!”

The rabbis of the Mishna contrast Korakh’s controversy with the later controversy of Hillel and Shammai. They agreed on almost nothing, yet their dispute had lasting value, because it was – not a revolution – a makhloket l’shem Shomayim, a “controversy for the sake of Heaven.” For a high purpose. Korakh’s controversy had no future, because it was built on jealousy and falsehood.

So that was the end of Korakh and his rebels.

But wait. What about the prophet Samuel, who supposedly descended from Korakh? And what about all the psalms that are assigned to the family of Korakh, and apparently they sang those psalms in Solomon’s Temple centuries later?

The answer to this dilemma comes in one sentence we won’t read until three weeks from now, in Sedrah Pinkhas: Uv’ney Korakh lo meysu – it simply says “the children of Korakh did not die.” So what happened to them? They were there with their father, weren’t they? In the Gemara Sanhedrin we read a teaching that they were reserved a special place in Gehinnom where they sat and sang. To which the Tosfos commentary adds: “The Holy One prepared a high spot for them, so they would not go deep into Gehinnom, and they did not die.” There they sat on a ledge, with the flames licking at their feet, singing psalms! As the Yiddish expression goes: Eykh mir a lebn – Some life!

But the important fact is: they survived. All the fanciful legends surrounding the descendants of Korakh add up to a marvelous message. Look at what his descendants lived to do:

Samuel the prophet crowned Saul the first king of Israel, as we will read in this week’s Haftorah, and actually completed the organization of the loosely connected tribes into a single nation. And the Levitic family of Korakh became the doorkeepers of the Holy Temple. They were responsible for eleven different psalms, singing of deeply felt religion – a thirst for G-d. They sang of human friendship, of Zion and the Temple itself, and they sang about individual life and death. They played instruments. They danced. The women took part. The Korakh family is repeatedly called Maskil – informed, competent, successful in their Levitic duties and their music.

All of this value from the family of the arch-rebel: Korakh, the rich ambitious envious rival of Moses and Aaron. Korakh the man who lost his cause and his life because he challenged authority for the wrong reasons. Selfish reasons. Indeed his children did not die. They lived, with difficulty at first, but they lived to prove their value for centuries to come. They transcended Korakh’s mistakes. They survived his failed rebellion. They made a better choice.

The pattern of Korakh and his descendants happened more than once in our history. In fact it is still happening. Look around, and you find families – we all know one or more families like this – where one generation rebelled against their Jewish heritage, chose assimilation, or Communism, or secular Humanism – and became lost, swallowed up by the world. And then their children, or perhaps their grandchildren, grow up and rediscover their Jewish roots. They find they enjoy brightening their table with Shabos candles… they find an intellectual excitement in learning Torah… they find great charm in Jewish music… they find a loving fulfillment in sharing Jewish ceremonies. They find exactly what the rebel ancestors threw away – still there, speaking to them loud and clear, as if those rebel ancestors were calling out to them: “Moses and his Torah are true, and we were wrong!”

Sometimes it doesn’t take two generations. Or even one. Sometimes it happens in one lifetime. Our Judaism can manage to survive all kinds of challenges. Rebellion can sometimes be valuable too, because it strengthens us. We can only hope that any controversy it produces will be l’shem shomayim – an argument in the name of Heaven. Then we have a chance to resolve it productively, for a Jewish future that can still sing our songs as the family of Korakh did.

Ken y’hee rotzon.

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CHECK IT OUT – Sh’lakh l’kha – Num. 13-15 – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

CHECK IT OUT – Sh’lakh l’kha – Num. 13-15 – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon

You get a call from your partner, your employer, or a member of your family, advising you of an opportunity. A house is for sale in a neighborhood you like. You are interested. So you suggest: Check it out.

Depending on how that person goes about checking out the prospective purchase, you may or may not want to make an offer on it. Forexample, here’s one kind of report:

“The house looks solid enough. Roomy, too. It has a big yard with fruit trees. In fact, we picked a couple of bananas and an avocado – not bad, eh? Can’t get in to see the inside because the agent demands an accepted offer first. But it’s been paintedrecently, so the price is very firm. Right down the street we saw some graffiti. Teens strolled by wearing their hats backwards – could be gang infested.”

And here’s another view:

“Got talking with the lady next door. Found out the owner is very anxious to sell. Open to any offer. Just modernized the kitchen and redecorated, and then got transferred to the east coast. So he has no cash on hand to put down on a home there. Anyone with a large down payment can write their own ticket. Neighborhood Watch is very effective; no major problems.”

Are these two people talking about the same house? Sure they are. Just as the two groups of spies we will read about in this week’s Torah portion were talking about the same country. An important difference is how they “checked it out.”

The 12 spies Moses sends out in the Sedrah are princes. Executives. Commissioned officers. They follow accepted procedures – sample the fruit, assess the strength of the fortifications, take note of the appearance of  the local population. If they only had video, they could bring back picture and sound to back up their report of 50-foot-high walls and men of giant size. By a vote of 10 to 2, they convince the people that Canaan can’t be conquered.

In our Haftorah, Joshua sends just 2 spies. They are different. One is 80-year-old Caleb – the only surviving member of the original checker-outers and one of the dissenting minority (Joshua himself being the other dissenter). The second spy is a youth of 18. One is chosen for courage, the other for wisdom. They don’t take notes and they don’t bring samples. They spend the night with Rahab. Her occupation is Innkeeper, providing accommodations to travelers. From the Hebrew word zonah we gather thatshe provides other comforts too. Either way, she has ample opportunity to gauge the spirit of the population. She trades her inside information for a guarantee of safety, and the two spies return with an exciting message about Canaan: Piece of cake.

Chances are neither report is 100% accurate. But the contrast is dramatic. The negative report in the Book of Numbers brings on 38 more years in the desert. The positive report in the Book of Joshua empowers the people to take over Jericho in a week.

How do we go about checking out our opportunities? Do we suffocate them by analyzing the difficulties? And does that make them insurmountable?

Am I too old to learn to use a computer? After all, I’m not even a passable typist, and computer science is as foreign to me as Swahili. I have no money to spend on computer software that can become obsolete in half an hour – let alone the furniture that goes under all that equipment. I’d better stay in the lead pencil desert for another 38 years.

Do I have the discipline to change my health habits? After all, those exercise machines are really no better than a good walk around the block, are they? And didn’t you hear about the fellow that lost big pounds and built up his muscles – and died anyway?

I don’t trust those diets either. Every couple of weeks a new one comes out, and they contradict each other. I’d better stay in the Aspirin and Alka Seltzer desert for another 38 years.

Can I really patch things up with my sister? So much time went by. She’ll consider me stupid for trying. Whatever happened between us isn’t even the issue any more. We just have different lives now. We built 50-foot walls between us. Our antagonism is gigantic. Better stay in the Breygez (Angry) desert for another 38 years.

Take another look, friends. Check it out again. Maybe we can turn part of our future around. Accept a message from your friendly “Innkeeper:”

A computer is just a tool, and a few simple functions of it can make your life easier and more interesting. The first cream puff you forego, and the first stationery bike ride you take, can be the first step to feeling better. And as for your sister, maybe you and she can at last agree that “time wounds all heels.”

Our Haftorah has a sequel. After the two spies return with their positive report, Joshua mounts the campaign to conquer Jericho. The sequel, later in the same book, recounts Joshua’s signal to attack. He sounded the shofar, and the walls came tumbling down.

Blow that shofar loud enough, and we can wake ourselves to action. Our success in decisions that affect our own lives can bring us blessing.

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