Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Hebrew Insights into Parashat Pin’chas – Bamidbar (Numbers) 25:10 - 29

Hebrew Insights into Parashat Pin’chas – Bamidbar (Numbers) 25:10 - 29

The issue we encounter at the beginning of Parashat Pin’chas has already been introduced to us at the end of last week’s Parashat Balak. Pin’chas, A’haron’s grandson and El’azar’s firstborn, observed the sinful act committed by an Israelite, a leader of the tribe of Shim’on (Simeon) with a Midianite woman, and slew both of them. He thus “made atonement” (25:13) for the sons of Yisrael and brought to an end the plague that had smitten them. The word used here for “made atonement” is none other than “(vay)cha’per,” of the root k.f.r, which we know as “kippur,” or “covering.” Pin’chas’ action, along with the penalty paid for by the two sinners, had propitiated for Yisrael’s iniquity of “clinging to Ba’al Pe’or” (ref. 25:3). T’hilim (Psalms) 106 (28-30) also makes a reference to this episode: “They also were joined to Baal-Peor, and ate the sacrifices of the dead; and provoked Him with their deeds; and a plague broke out among them. Then Phinehas stood and intervened, and the plague was stayed.” In this latter reference Pin’chas’ act is describes as – (vay)fa’lel (p/f.l.l) – which is interposing, intervening, mediating, as well as judging and pleading. It is from this root that the word “t’fila”, prayer, is derived. Pin’chas’ action seems to have been multi-facetted.

As mentioned, Zimri the son of Salu was one of the leaders of the tribe of Shim’on. The Midianite woman, Cozbi, was likewise a daughter of a “head of the people of a father's house in Midian” (25:15). Leading Yisrael astray definitely ranked high on the list of priorities of the Mo’av-Midian coalition. The protagonists’ names, in this Parasha like that of last week’s, are also of interest. Thus, Pin’chas appears to be an Egyptian name, having the characteristics so typical of other Egyptian names, such as the name of the town of Tach’pan’ches (Jeremiah 44:1) and that of Tach’peh’nis Egyptian wife of Hadad the Edomite (1 Kings 11:19, 20). But even more interesting is the name of the Midianite princess Cozbi, which is made up of the letters kaf/chaf, zayin, bet/vet, and yod. The first three of those, that is c.z.b/v, constitute the root for the word “cazav” (or, phonetically, “kazav”), which means to “lie, deceive, lying, deception.” Last week we read in 23:19: “Elohim is not a man that He should lie.” The verb rendered there as “lie” is “(vay)cha’zev,” which refers particularly to “being unfaithful or untrue to one’s commitment or promise.” In a land thirsty for water as Yisrael is, riverbeds hold a promise of getting filled during the winter season. However, in the dry season such riverbeds dry up. Hence, a stream of water which dries up after the rainy season may be used as imagery for that which lets one down: “You surely are to me like deceitful – ach’zav - waters which cannot be trusted,” complains Yirmiyahu in a moment of dark despair to his Creator (Jer. 15:18). Cozbi, too, was nothing but a bait of deception and enticement to the people of Yisrael (cf. Prov. 5), and especially to leaders like Zimri. Walking in the paths of temptation, away from He Who is the Way the Truth and the Life, leads not only to disappointment, but far worse… to destruction and death, which was experienced by 24,000 souls (ref. 25:9) in Yisrael’s camp.

As noted above, Cozbi was a Midianite. Midian was a son of Avraham by his wife K’turah (Gen. 25:2). The name stems from the verb “din” (dalet, yod, noon), meaning primarily to “judge or mete justice,” referring to all aspects of government. It is the root for the word “medina” – province. However, this particular form – “Midian” - is related to “mah’don”, which albeit of the same root (as “judgment”) means “strife or contention” (e.g. Prov. 15:18; Jer. 15:10; Hab. 1:3 etc.). Thus, far from being a people of judgment (that is of justice and righteousness), the Midianites’ affairs were handled by resorting to magic and witchcraft and all forms of deception, as was so evident in the character of Bil’am. The fact that they were a people not totally unaware of the Elohim of Yisrael and of His ways (as illustrated by Yitro, Moshe’s father-in-law and even by Bil’am himself) only made the “din” (‘judgment’), pronounced upon them by Yisrael’s Elohim more severe. Hence YHVH says to Moshe: “Vex the Midianites; and you shall strike them; For they are vexers to you, because of the wiles with which they have beguiled you in the matter of Peor, and in the matter of Cozbi the daughter of a ruler of Midian, their sister, who was struck in the day of the plague because of the matter of Peor” (25:17-18). Highlighted in this passage is the cunning stance and frame of mind of the Midianites, illustrated so typically by Cozbi. The order from on High here is “to vex and strike” the Midianites, since they “vexed you.” “Vexing or harassing” in this case is “tza’ror” (tz.r.r - tzadi, resh, resh), meaning, “showing hostility,” while “tzorer” is an “enemy or adversary.” In Parashat Balak we heard Bil’am say of Yisrael: “he shall eat up the nations that are his foes – tza’rav” (24:8 italics added), and next week, in Parashat Matot/Ma’sa’ey a condition will be placed before Yisrael: “And if you will not drive out the inhabitants of the land from before you, then it shall be, those whom you let remain of them shall be thorns in your eyes, and as goads in your sides. And they will vex – (ve)tza’ra’ru - you on the land in which you are living” (33:55 italics added). Haman, the Jews’ cruel adversary, is named in Esther 3:10; 8:1, “tzorer ha-Yehudim,” the “foe of the Jews.” Haman the Agagite was a descendent of the royal house of Amalek, about whom it was said, “Amalek threatened the body of the people [of Yisrael], whilst Midian threatened its soul”. [1]

The opening section of the Parasha presents two words that are used several times within a few verses. The first one is repeated four times in 25:11-13, and it is “jealous” or “jealousy.” The root of “jealousy” is kano (root k.n.a. kof, noon, alef) originating in the “color produced in the face by deep emotion” [2]. It is especially related to marriage relationship and as “God is depicted as Israel’s husband; he is [therefore] a jealous God… Phinehas [too] played the faithful lover by killing a man and his foreign wife, and thus stayed the wrath of divine jealousy”. [3] The other word that occurs five times in verses 14-18, is “smite or smitten” and “strike” (in other translations “slay and slain”). In all these instances the verb “nako” (n.k.h, noon, kaf, hey) is used in a variety of conjugations. N.k.h (or “hakot”) is a very common root and may be used in many different ways, describing fall and defeat, punishment, being beaten, smitten or hurt for a variety of reasons. In our case it relates to the punishment of death. However, because of the emphatic repetition of “jealousy” - kano - just before the reiteration of “nako” - it would appear that our text is underscoring a situation in which YHVH’s “jealousy” has been provoked, resulting in a “smiting unto death.” Clearly, a cause-and-effect word picture is being conveyed here, being aided by a (subtle) play on words.

Chapter 26 is devoted to the census of the leaders of the tribes and of all those who were twenty-years old and above; that is, those eligible for army service. It is according to their relative number that the land of Yisrael is to be apportioned to them: “To the many you shall increase their inheritance; and to the few you shall diminish their inheritance” (v. 54 emphases added). On the other hand, in verse 62 we read that the census of the Levites applied to “all males from a month old and upward,” but it goes on to say that “they were not counted among the sons of Israel, because there was no inheritance given them among the sons of Israel” (emphasis added). “Inheritance” here is “nachala,” the root of (noon, chet, lamed) which is also a stream and therefore connotes a downward flow, meaning “a permanent possession inherited by succession” (the Levites were told by YHVH that He was their portion – “nachala”, Num. 18:20). A different conjugation transforms to “manchil,” which is “to cause to possess” such as is seen in Dvarim (Deuteronomy) 32:8: “When the Most High gave – “hinchil” - each nation its heritage, when he set apart the sons of Adam, he set the bounds of the people according to the number of the people of Israel.” And just as the Land of Yisrael was divvied out according to the size of each household, so was the rest of the world divided up by YHVH, who knew that His people would be scattered among the nations, according to their (the Israelites) number. In chapter 27 we meet Tzlofchad’s daughters who demand their possession saying: “Our father died in the wilderness… and had no son. Why is our father's name taken away from the midst of his family because there is no son to him? Give us an inheritance among our father's brothers” (vv. 3, 4 emphasis added). Inheritance in this case is “achuza,” of the verb achoz (root alef, chet, zayin), meaning to “grasp or hold” and hence to “possess and possession.”

When YHVH reminds Moshe that his day of departure is close at hand, the latter expresses his concern regarding the future: “Let YHVH, the Elohim of the spirits of all flesh, appoint a man over the congregation who may go out before them, and who may go in before them, and who may lead them out, and who may bring them in, so that the congregation of YHVH may not be as sheep to whom there is no shepherd” (27:16,17). Evidently Moshe understands the integrated composition of man, being both flesh and spirit while at the same time also recognizing that YHVH knows his creatures through and through. In describing the need for a leader, Moshe underscores “going out before (the people)… going in before (them)… leading out… and bringing in…” Is Moshe subtly making reference to the possible fate of the next leader, lest it be similar to his own (that is, staying behind and not entering the land with the rest of the people)? Regardless if that is the case or not, Moshe displays no bitterness when told to “take Joshua, a man in whom is the spirit” (v. 18), echoing the “spirits” mentioned in verse 16 above. YHVH instructs Moshe how to ordain his successor, which Moshe follows implicitly; “as YHVH commanded” (v. 23), in spite of what was no doubt a grave disappointment to him. However, since Moshe had not been deceived or embittered, his disappointment cannot be categorized or classified as a disillusion, contrary to the description in Ee’yov (Job) 41:9: “Behold, your expectation is false [nich’zeva, of the root k.z.v examined above].” Neither was Moshe’s experience like that of the faithless ones from among the people of Yisrael who sought gratification from false sources that could not satisfy.

1 New Studies in Bamidbar, Nechama Leibowitz, trans. Aryeh Newman. Eliner
Library, Department for Torah Education and Culture in the Diaspora. Hemed Books Inc.,
Brooklyn, N.Y.

2 The New Brown, Driver, Briggs, Gesenius Lexicon, Francis Brown Hendrickson. Publishers,
Peabody, Mass. 1979.

3 Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, Vol. 2, ed. R. Laird Harris, Moody Press, Chicago,