Tuesday, October 12, 2010

On the Importance of Getting the WHOLE Story

On the Importance of Getting the WHOLE Story
Sermon for Parshat Pinchas—July 2, 2010
Rabbi Steve Weisman Temple Solel, Bowie MD

We start tonight with a bizarre factoid, and an admission of an all too human tendency. First – the factoid – in all of Torah, there are 6 weekly parshiyot which carry the name of an individual character as the name of the portion. In Genesis, we have Noach and Chayei Sarah, in Exodus, Yitro, and here, within the last 4 weeks in the book of Numbers have come the other 3 – Korach, Balak, and Pinchas, which we read tonight. I am not sure what to make of this, but it might win you a bar bet or two – depending on which bars you might hang out at!

Now, for the admission of human frailty. Since tonight is my last sermon before I leave for my stints at camp, and therefore the last sermon of my first decade with the congregation (and the last to be delivered in my 40s!), there is a very real desire to swing for the fences – to try to overpreach, and leave everyone with a powerful message that will last all summer. It is the same tendency that a 40 year old, trying to make a good first impression, failed to avoid when he preached his first sermon here – although THEN, at least, when I used tried and known material, it was still new to this congregation, and therefore worked better! It is the same tendency that overcomes most of my colleagues every year as we prepare for the High Holy Days. I would like to think that, if nothing else, in this past decade I learned to recognize that tendency and begin to fight it!

That is part of the reason I am so excited about these next 2 weeks at 6 Points Sports Academy. It isn’t just seeing 30 years of effort in this area coming to fruition. It isn’t just being part of something new and exciting from the ground floor. The excitement is sparked by the knowledge that the educational role I am being asked to play does NOT fall prey to this frailty. We have recognized that for many of the 6 Points participants (but thankfully not our own 5 campers there), this summer represents most if not all of the Judaic content they will get all year.

But, having recognized that truth, we have NOT overburdened the program, trying to shoehorn every teachable moment and Jewish concept into the day, and thereby lessening what the program is supposed to be. We have, instead, created a powerful educational program with modest goals and intentions, and built it into the fabric of the naturally occurring program of a sports camp, in ways likely to appeal to campers participating in this kind of program, with methods likely to carry over beyond camp. THAT is exciting – especially if it works!

I share that with you tonight, because I suspect that this awareness is at the heart of the message I want to share from our portion tonight. Pinchas is a rather remarkable portion on several levels, and one which most of us here are less familiar with, as it usually comes up during the Rabbi’s summer hiatus, when we don’t focus as closely on Torah at services, and don’t do Torah study. The fact that it is in the book of Numbers means that now that our Torah study group is moving through the text in a serial manner, so that we can cover ALL of the content, since we have spent the last 10 weeks or so on the Ten Commandments in Exodus, we are still several YEARS away from covering it there!

With all due respect to one of our newest members, our URJ Congregational Representative, Lisa Gottman, who celebrated becoming a Bat Mitzvah with this portion, and therefore I was going to surprise her and invite her forward to preach the text – cold! -- the text offers us several different elements, and several challenges. It begins in the middle of an EXTREMELY ethically challenging story, and moves on to several other elements, EVERY ONE of which is NOT unique in the text.

Taken as a whole, it seems clear that the material in this portion, after the initial cliffhanger story is resolved, was intended to begin a process of wrapping up a saga, going back to earlier material, and tying up loose ends. Indeed, the rest of Numbers seems to do exactly this! But then that would mean that at some point, some version of an ancient tradition was being concluded with Numbers, and not with the Fifth book of the Pentateuch, the Chumash, both of which linguistically come from roots meaning 5, namely Deuteronomy!

Working backwards to the largest challenge, with which our portion starts:

The end of the portion is yet another explication of the ancient calendar of festival days. We have seen other variants on this theme in both Exodus AND Leviticus. Perhaps surprisingly (at least at first blush), even more than the Leviticus text, which we would expect to be rich in priestly details of the various sacrifices that marked these days, this calendar recitation seems to be the one that marks the religious obligations for sacrifices. It starts with the expected daily sacrifices, then moves to those for the Sabbath and the new month, before moving, in great detail, into the festival calendar that starts with Passover, moves to Shavuot, then moves to the High Holy Days (are we surprised that there is actually an offering to be made ON Yom Kippur!?) before moving into the daily offerings for Sukkot.

In the preceding chapter, the portion tells the story of a member of the tribe of Manasseh, named Zeloph’chad, who died without a son, but who did have five unmarried daughters. While this was no doubt a source of great pride to this man in his life, at his death, it created a problem. His daughters correctly realized that unless they, even though they were women, were allowed to inherit his property, his line and legacy would end there and be lost forever. So they brought their case to Moses, who took it before God (as was done with all the difficult matters), Who instructed Moses to teach that Zeloph’chad’s daughters were right in their claim, and the law must allow for inheritance by daughters in such cases.

Now, before we get carried away in the feminist victory that this DOES represent – and acknowledge that the text actually gives names for all five daughters! – we need to make sure, in the interest of full disclosure, that we are aware that the story does NOT end here! In the very last chapter of Numbers, 10 chapters later, the clan heads of Zeloph’chad’s portion of the tribe appeal this decision, on the grounds that if the daughters were allowed to inherit, when they married, their possession, part of Manassan territory, would be transferred to their husbands, who might not be of the tribe of Manasseh, creating great confusion. Moses took the appeal to God, who recognized the rectitude of this claim as well, and ordered the original ruling to be modified, to make clear that any unmarried woman who inherits in this way shall be limited to marrying only within her own tribe!

Making the partial story we have here this week even more intriguing, is that it ends here with God calling Moses up on a mountain, so he can view the Promised Land that he will not be entering, as he is reminded, because of the sin of not upholding God’s power when he struck the rock to get water instead of speaking to it. Moses, in response, asked God to make known who would succeed Moses, and Moses is told to present Joshua to the people, and have Eliezer the High Priest place his hands upon Joshua publicly to empower him. This, even though we have a very similar story towards the end of Deuteronomy, after which it appears Joshua actually DOES start taking over leadership, unlike here!

Prior to that, now that we are in the 40th year of wandering, and, as we will see in a moment, the last plague against the generation of the wilderness has been ended, God calls for a second census, presumably to show the numbers that will enter the land. Although there are significant shifts in relative tribal sizes, the overall total remains virtually unchanged, even after the generation of the Exodus has been wiped out, save for Moses, and as the text reminds, Joshua and Caleb, and it is the children and grandchildren that are now being counted.

Which finally brings us back to the conclusion of the Pinchas story, with which the portion opens. The last 9 verses of last Shabbat told how the Moabite women, probably the cultic prostitutes worshipping the same Ba’al as was represented by Balaam, the priest and apparent hero of last Shabbat’s portion, were seducing the Israelite men, and luring them to worship their Ba’al. Our God was, for obvious reasons, pretty angry, and ordered Moses to act to stop this unfaithfulness. When an Israelite man started sporting with a Midianite woman in the sight of the assembled masses before the Tent of Meeting, Pinchas, the son of Aaron’s son Eleazar, stabbed both of them with a single spear thrust, an act which also was credited with ending a plague which had killed 24,000 Israelites.

The penalty for this double murder of passion is given in THIS week’s portion. God grants Pinchas a pact of Divine friendship, which includes an eternal priesthood for his descendants. Hardly sounds like a punishment at all! Until we look at the big picture.

Aaron has died, as have his 2 oldest sons, Nadab and Abihu, so Eleazar, his third son, has replaced him as High Priest (it is Eleazar, the portion tells us, who installed Joshua as Moses’ successor). Thus, before this incident, Pinchas was next in line to the High Priesthood, as would be his descendants after him. That God is “rewarding” him with what is, very clearly, a demotion to merely an “eternal priesthood” (as opposed to the High Priesthood) is, in fact, a punishment.

And so, a difficult ethical dilemma is skirted. What appears to be a reward for a passionate murder committed out of respect for God, turns out, in full context, to be a demotion. This allows God to express gratefulness that the people were turned away from other gods, while still confirming that there are ethical limits to acting in God’s name, a message that resonates well with modern readers.

However, as with everything else in this portion, to fully get the complete message from this story, we are obligated to go outside the portion, and make sure we have ALL the details relating to the stories in the portion. For the census, we have to compare to the first census, taken right after the Exodus. In addition, we are referred back to the story of the spies to remind us that the people being counted here represent a totally different cast than the first counting. To fully appreciate the nuances of the story of Zeloph’chad’s daughters requires us to read both pieces and put them together. The story of Moses coming to the end of his leadership requires us to look back to striking the rock, and ahead to the actual succession of Joshua.

And the otherwise surprising plethora of sacrificial details in the restating of the festival calendar, seemingly better suited for Leviticus than here, turns out to be completely consistent with the rest of the portion as well. By including those details here, and NOT in Leviticus, not only does this text force us to refer to both the Leviticus and Exodus calendars for comparison and clarification, but it further cements the role of these chapters as the start of the wrap up of at least the Book of Numbers.

For the Biblical scholars among us, this portion becomes a lynch pin for a number of major theories about the development and evolution of the text. For those of us who like Biblical stories, the portion gives us a number of them. For those of us who prefer to focus on ethics derived from our text, the portion offers challenges, but also allows us to find solutions.

But for the rest of us, the message of our portion, taken as a whole, becomes a major antidote to so many of our modern problems. Because this portion obligates us, in every story it tells, not to merely accept the stories we receive on this Shabbat, but rather to do our homework, gather up the rest of the pieces of the stories, and rebuild the context and big picture, to get the full and correct messages that I believe our tradition intends for us to learn.

This portion is not about rushing to judgment, or expediency in seeking solutions. But rather, it reinforces both the need and the value in the longer, harder road of slogging through everything we can gather, looking for and finding the subtleties rather than the sweeping generalizations, and challenging ourselves not to jump to the first visible conclusion and accept it to the exclusion of all others.

Imagine how different our world would be today if just these last few lessons were the norm of human behavior, and NOT the exception, worthy of being preached on an occasion such as this! If only it were so easy! But hey – we have all summer to work on it!! I look forward to hearing your reports of success upon my return! KYR!

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