The Pinhas Problem

Not everyone is happy with Pinhas' action and its reward.

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This commentary is provided by special arrangement with the Jewish Outreach Institute, an organization dedicated to creating a more open and welcoming Judaism. To learn more, visit www.joi.org.

Last week, Pinhas sent a spear through an Israelite and a Midianite woman simply because they were having a relationship. In this week’s parashah, the title of which indicates the esteem in which the Rabbis held him, Pinhas’ reward is described: he is placed in line for the priesthood. While I understand that documentary critics of the Torah explain the political reasons for such an action, I am still stuck with its message, even if it is edited into the text.

Sometimes the crux of the parashah just sticks in my gut and I can’t seem to find its transcendent message. Sure any parashah has many things to say and I could easily avoid its primary lesson. And I recognize the teaching of my youth about not turning a text into a pretext for saying something else. The message of this parashah–which begin in last week’s Torah portion–is worsened in this week’s reading.

However, it seems that not everyone is happy with Pinhas’ action nor his reward. Immediately thereafter a census is taken of the people, presumably once again to determine the readiness of the people for war. Are they really prepared to stand behind Moses? Were they chastened by Pinhas’ actions? Were they emboldened by the act and its reward?

It is clear that the Torah text is implying that the census is meant to appraise the disposition of the people after such actions. The long listing of the various clans seems to be included to indicate who supported the action or who was indeed prepared to take conquest of the land.

But then comes the final story in this narrative–an insertion of the plight of the daughters of Zelophehad. In this oft-reported case, Zelophehad dies without sons. Thus, there is no one in the family to legally inherit his land and belongings. His daughters make a plea that they should be entitled to their father’s estate. Moses brings their case before God, and God rules in favor of the five women. This decision established an important precedent in Jewish law that has been cited for generations by those who seek gender equality in Judaism.

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Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky is Executive Director of Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute and the author of numerous books about Jewish spirituality.

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