DEDICATION: To all people killed or who have lost family members or loved ones in terrorist attacks --
may their souls be bound up with the One and may their loved ones find comfort and healing.
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This has been a week of noticing how people absorb information and how they do not. I have just concluded teaching another 6 week series of my "Four Worlds of Listening" Teleclass (It was a wonderful session with truly great students! - more info: www.alephu.homestead.com ).
It is my habit at the conclusion of a class I teach to allot some time to sit back and take an accounting of what I learned during the class. One of the key things that we learn in the certification process of becoming a Life Coach is that one ends up teaching or coaching the very things that the coach herself needs. I extend that to the classes I teach, as well. I believe that we teach the lessons that we ourselves need to learn. It is one of the things that no longer surprises me, but will probably always amaze me, and that is how the universe accommodates this aspect.
I work during the week teaching people how to alert others to the hazards of the chemicals in their lives and what can be done to live in a more life-friendly personal environment. That is another place where I am no longer surprised that people are not aware of all of the information around them. What we choose to hear shapes our lives every minute of every day. We are bombarded by so much information every day that we must pick and choose to allow only part of the information to penetrate or we will go into information overload. Ironically, the people who think they are trying to hear everything are probably hearing less because if the overload. On the other hand, someone who think that they know everything hears almost nothing because there is so little (if anything) that can penetrate a closed mind.
The hardest thing for me to teach the trainers about is how to listen to what people are saying and not throw more information at someone than they are ready to take in.
Much of what blocks us from hearing is either fear or anger or ego. Much of the time these considerations are connected. All three things tend to keep you in the world of Asiyah, the world of doing, the world of (lower case) self. These considerations are defensive in nature and, certainly for fear and anger, adrenalin connected. Adrenalin helps us survive when we are threatened by helping us be stronger than we usually are, more focused (perhaps very narrowly) and operating on a more instinctive, rather than cognitive, level. When adrenalin is high, our behavior becomes reactive and follows the strongest linkages in our minds. Sometimes the strongest link is the only link, the one put there by our inherited instinct. This tendency is why the military drills and drills (and then drills some more) on the behaviors they want a soldier to follow in combat (very high adrenalin), so that those behaviors are the strongest.
Midrash teaches that habits create these links -- every time we do something, that path of response is strengthened by another very fine thread. These threads link with each other over time and what started as a few weak strands becomes a cable so strong that it is virtually impossible to resist. When these cables serve to shut us down into ourselves, very little can ever penetrate.
On the other hand, when we learn to open up and trust, we can overcome these cables of anger and fear, one strand at a time. Then we become open to new information and new choices that seem to magically appear before us. At the end of the last Parsha, Moshe and the elders were in the closed space. While Phinkhas' move vibrates with fundamentalist implications, it is his ability to notice what is happening in the very midst of Israel when Moshe and the Elders are busy "finger pointing" and his willingness to strike a blow at the ringleaders that earns him YHVH's attention and reward.
1. Parsha details: Num 25:10-30:1 [ Special Haftorah Jeremiah 1:1-2:3 ]
2. Questions and a few observations
Summary: Reward of familial priesthood for Eleazar and more details about Zimri and Cozbi, the census by Moshe and Eleazar, the issue of the daughters, the repeat of Moshe's sentence, the selecting of Y'hoshu'a (including laying on of hands), the list of sacrifices for the various times
One of the more challenging Parshiot to listen to or read. It starts out by YHVH announcing to Moshe that Pinkhas, the son of Eleazar, the Coheyn will forever be in charge of the sacrificial cult. Why does the Parsha start out with the reward and what was it for? To answer, we need to start with the 10 pasukim (verses) of the account of the slaying of Zimri and Cozbi which were the trailing end of the previous Parsha.
By splitting it this way, the Rabbis (who set up the Parshiot and their schedule) wanted to say that the killing itself was not the key item. I think that is true - the reward says that Pinkhas was ardent for YHVH and made atonement for the people, thus ending a plague that had killed 24,000 people. While the thought of killing two people to end a plague that is ravaging the people may still sound harsh in our modern ears, I think that is a key part to what is going on.
Let's look at the details of the few pasukim that describe Pinkhas' "pincushing" Zimri and Cozbi: (They are the beginning of Chapter 25 and the end of last week's Parsha)
1. And Israel stayed in Shittim, and the people began to lust after the daughters of Moab. 2. And they called out to the people to the sacrifices of their (feminine) gods; and the people ate, and bowed down to their gods. 3. And Yisrael attached himself to Baal-Peor; and the anger of YHVH flared in Yisrael.
4. And YHVH said to Moshe, "Take all the chiefs of the people; and stigmatize (or pierce or hang) them for YHVH by the sun, that the fury of YHVH fall away from Israel."
5. And Moshe said to the judges of Yisrael, "Each of you slay your men who were attached to Baal-Peor."
6. And, behold, one man of the people of Yisrael came and brought near to his brethren a Midianite woman in the sight of Moshe, and in the sight of all of the congregation of the people of Israel; they wept in the opening to the Tent of Meeting.
7. And when Pinkhas, the son of Eleazar, the son of Aharon the coheyn, saw it, he rose up from within the congregation, and took a javelin in his hand;
8. And he went after the man of Israel to the hut, and thrust through both of them, the man of Yisrael, and the woman through her womb. Thus the plague ceased from the people of Israel.
9. And those who died in the plague were twenty four thousand.
Some key points as we might say it today: YHVH says "Gather the leaders; punish them at high noon [in front of everyone]. Moshe says to the judges, "[Find out who] has been actually physically involved ; Each one slays his own people." [Just then as they are trying to figure out how to do this,] in traipses a man of the people and a harlot of Midian and they flaunt their activities, taking them into the [inner] tent [of the Mishkan]. The leaders cry [and wring their hands]. Pinkhas sees all this and leaps into action [depsite the inherent threat] . [The harlotry stops] and the plague stops. 24,000 died in the plague.
Who is the subject of the YHVH's them? Was it the offenders or was it the leaders? Traditional commentators say it was the offenders. If it was the leaders, then it would appear that Moshe misunderstood the directions. The Hebrew word also presents some challenges in that it can mean stigmatize, pierce or hang (what a set of choices). Typically it is translated hang, but stoning was the prescribed execution method for idolatry. So there are some textual difficulties in this passage.
To our modern ears, the whole thing sounds extremely fundamentalist and extreme. Unfortunately, the choices open to a wandering desert folk in the period before condoms and antibiotics were more limited. From the number that died in the plague, namely 24,000, a lot of Yisrael was sick as a result of the harlotry. There is evidence to indicate that the harlotry involved may well have been anal sex, but whether that is the case or not, the text appears to speak of a sexually transmitted disease. The leaders of Yisrael are obviously perplexed and trying to figure out what to do, as indicated by the description that they were sitting with Moshe in the opening to the Tent of Meeting and crying.
Sitting in the crowd, Pinkhas sees all this AND he sees that the leaders cannot respond. So he does. He "rises out of the congregation" and literally takes things into his own hand, killing the two who are brazenly challenging the authority of Moshe and the leaders and performing an idolatrous act right in the Mishkan.
Then we get to this week's Parsha - YHVH rewards Pinkhas with a covenant of Shalom because he, in the one sharp act, actually prevented the larger scale slaughter that might have happened. We do not hear of all of all of the perpetrators being killed or even punished, even though 24,000 ended up dying of the plague.
Pinkhas' move was not so much "taking it into his own hands" as it was that while everyone was wringing their hands and weeping and not sure how to proceed, Pinkhas sees the leaders of the rebellion in the Israelite man and the Harlot. During the piercing, we are told who they actually were. This is classic Torah!
Torah wants you to say, hey, he was an extremist, who was he to rise up and slay someone without Moshe directing it? Besides, Moshe had specifically told the leaders that each one was supposed to slay his one people and it turns out that Zimri is a Simeonite, in fact a prince. He was not a Levite like Pinkhas was.
So Torah describes the action as it might appear to an outsider, declares the reward for Pinkhas and his seed. Then, when the audience is saying, "I don't get it, what's happening?" Torah responds, the man was Zimri, a powerful prince in a powerful tribe whom many would consider "beyond the law" and the Harlot was nothing less than the daughter of one of the most powerful men in the nearby Moabite community.
The key to Pinkhas' action was not that he struck out against a powerful pair, but rather that he saved many people by "seeing" that this pair was, in fact, the source of the problem, the plague itself. Once they were killed (dramatically), the rebellion and the harlotry and the plague (which are all connected) ends instantly. It is only after the couple is named that the audience realizes that Pinkhas saw through their status to their guilt and role in the plague. Fortunately for Yisrael, he was right and his action actually saved lives and squashed what was leading to an attempted coup.
This was not about forcing everyone to submit to the same religious practices or being a vigilante, this was about using surgical expertise to stop the deaths of thousands (which was ongoing). That the death was by piercing and not by stoning is actually a significant indication that the overriding crime was not the idolatry (horrendous as it might have been), but rather political rebellion which threatened to destroy the people in a "divide and conquer" move by the Midianites.
The tragedy of the story is not that Pinkhas found it necessary to use killing as his method, then, to squash that attempted coup. Rather, it is that in thousands of years, we have not yet learned enough to move beyond killing to achieve political goals, despite the much greater array of tools and methods at our disposal.
3. Some Observations
There are several interesting word usages and even word plays in this passage.
First, there is the word for stigmatize, pierce or hang (hay-kuf-ayin). Most translations use hang, although they acknowledge that pierce or even embed is closer to the likely meaning. The support for hanging is from other passages where sinners are hung after they are killed (to be object lessons to others). The translation of piercing is supported or reflected in the method Pinkhas uses to kill Zimri and Cozbi.
Zimri's name means singer or praiser, son of invaluable. Cozbi's name means falsehood or "ill with gonorrhea" - hmmm. She is the daughter of Tzur, usually translated as rock, a name for the One (as in Tzur Yisrael). However, as soon as she is named, YHVH says "Tzaror" (harass, annoy) the Midainites. The sound closeness would not have been lost on the Israelite audience hearing this story.
Another word play is where the pair goes to. The tent is called kubah (kuf-bet- hay), which has a secondary meaning of womb, which is through where Pinkhas stabs the pair of them (kevatah - her womb).
There is a similarity between Beor - Bilaam's father and Peor, the deity in the story. They might not sound all that alike to our ears, but even today, Arabic does not distinguish between these two sounds.
The word q-n-_ (kuf-nun-aleph), which describes the quality about Pinkhas which is being rewarded, is always a challenge to translate. The dictionary defines it as: fanatic, jealous, passionate, envious, ardent, zealous, possessive, rabid, bigoted, phrenetic, to resist strongly. Now, this is a word used to describe both YHVH and Pinkhas. Perhaps there is some word play here as well since a form of it is used four times in three verses. I think "passion" might actually work in all of the places that this root is used:
Numb 25:11. Pinkhas, the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, has turned my anger away from the people of Yisrael, for he was passionate regarding my passion in their midst, so that I did consume the people of Yisrael in my passion. 12. Therefore say, Behold, I give to him my covenant of peace; 13. And he shall have it, and his seed after him, the covenant of an everlasting priesthood; because he was passionate for his God, and made an atonement for the people of Israel.
This incident is actually part of the war with Sikhon that started in last week's parsha. Josh 13:20-22 links them together in one campaign led by Moshe against these kings. If this is the case, then the Amorites and the Moabites and Midianites (at least some of them) formed a coalition against Yisrael, which would support the concept that Yisrael was a considerable force in those days. And perhaps the Midrash that tells us that this attack (YHVH calls it that) on Yisrael was one of falsehood and deceit aimed at weakening (through the plague or STD) and perhaps dividing the people thereby, is more accurate than we might think at first glance.
If we recognize this battle in that light, then the command to utterly destroy them once and for all (this special plague-ridden community) with an elite force of only 12,000 in next week's Parsha makes more sense.
From elsewhere in TaNaCH we get some more insights. Josh 22:17 says that the "iniquity" of Peor from this incident is still with the people then - more indication that perhaps it is an STD. Psalm 106:28 says "And they joined themselves to Baal-Peor, and ate the sacrifices of the dead." This particular Psalm does not speak well of Yisrael. In 9 more verses it says "37. And they sacrificed their sons and their daughters to idols, 38. And shed innocent blood, the blood of their sons and of their daughters, whom they sacrificed to the idols of Canaan; and the land was polluted with blood." Hosea and Micah both mention this incident as well and, as we can expect, Moshe mentions it in Devarim. This is one of those events that marks a people's heritage and memory, as 9-11 marks the US.
We still have not arrived at any easy answers to national threats -- not even good ones that are difficult.
4. Intimate Contraction
Pulling back and closing ranks. Very much what Yisrael had to do to get through this incident. Recognizing the power that is in the sexual and other instinctive drives within us is challenging work. Sometimes the temptations are so subtle that we slip or slide into them and only some time later do we recognize how far we have fallen. Sometimes those around us can see clearly what we can not see because of our own misery and we become frozen in that misery and possibly fear.
Sometimes illness can cause us to fail to see the giant issue before us that if we could address that one thing we could eliminate a virtual plague in our own lives. Sometimes we become so engrossed in our own self-lies that we cannot see the impact that we are having on those around us. At times like that, or just to make sure that we are not be'or (blinded) by our own tzures (troubles), we need to become intimate and contract into our cores that join with the One and thus lift up our Self and accept some healing from the One who is passionate in love and grace.
5. Rav Sholom (z'l) used to say.....
The Bride needs to plan for her special time with her Groom and she is distracted with foolish things that her neighbors bring to her. They invite her to join them in silly and even dangerous things and she does. And so she becomes late in her preparations. She has allowed some of her bridal garments to become stained and dirty. How will she ever get them cleaned in time to meet with her beloved?
This Parsha is about lies and deception. Sometimes our enemies lure us away from the Holy One with gentle and pleasant invitations. Sometimes the invitation appears innocuous and innocent. It is only once we become attached to image of our own egos that the real fear of discovery reveals itself. Once that happens, is it only our deep and profound love for the Holy One that can draw us out of the quagmire of self-pity and self-image to come back and make our approach to the One. Sometimes we become so afraid that the Divine Judgment and Strength will crush us or pierce us through our very life-being. It is at precisely those times that we need to look to the Source for all that we are given and cleanse ourselves before all is lost. The burning time of summer is close at hand. Instead of just crying out and weeping, we must look around and act to rid ourselves of that which keeps us from our love of the Holy One and the Blessed One's love for us.
1. Eyes and seeing: Close your eyes for a moment or two and blank out the images that remain. Open your eyes and look around and see the world around you. Notice the colors and the textures and shadings. Notice the movement of subtle things like leaves in the breeze or a sleeping child or pet, or perhaps even a glass of water. Feel the movement of the air around you. Notice that the entire world is moving, even if only slightly. Become part of the flow of movement, your breath becoming part of the breath of the world.
2. Passion and hunger: Look inside and find something about which you hunger and also something about which you have passion. How do these two aspects interact? Does on feed the other? Does one attack the other and starve it? What do you sacrifice to these aspects? When do you control them and when do they control you. When must you look and act and when do you need to let the One act within you?
3. Spirit within: Joshua is described as being a person within whom the Ru'akh, the spirit, is very present. How can you know if someone has ru'akh inside them. How can you know that you have ru'akh inside you. Feel inside your Self and find the root of the ru'akh inside you. Where is it centered, What does it feel like? Feel its Presence grow as you notice it and acknowledge it. Give it permission to fill your being and become one with it.
ADS: ALEPH -- the Alliance for Jewish renewal. www.aleph.org If you aren't a member yet, please give very serious consideration to joining. The magazine, New Menorah, alone, is worth whatever you give. (Plus it helps pay for the rabbinic program where I am studying!)
You can order the Torah Cards and my jewelry through Mercaz at (216)595-0707 -- ask for Larry)
There are many traditional interpretations of the parsha that I neither talk about nor mention. That is done from a position of space. I trust that the average reader is either familiar with these or can find many of them easily in other commentaries readily available.
Thanks for reading this. If I have offended you, please forgive me -- that was not my intention. If you found some joy or happiness in reading this, thank you for allowing me to be a part. If you found a reason to think about something more deeply - kol hakavod and thank you!
And to the people giving me feedback thank you so much! I enjoy all of it. (Including the typos) You have made this weekly practice wonderful.
(c) 2003 Candy Lobb All rights reserved