Perashat Pinhas: 1. Death and the Maiden 2. Truth, Justice, and the Daughters of Zelophad

1. Death and the Maiden

- Here, she said. What does that mean?

He leaned downward and read near her polished thumbnail.

- Metempsychosis?

- Yes. Who’s he when he’s at home?

- Metempsychsois, he said, frowning. It’s Greek: from the Greek. That means the transmigration of souls.

- O, rocks! She said. Tell us in plain words’.

(from Ulysses, by James Joyce)

Death and the Maiden, Over and Over Again

At the beginning of this week’s perasha, which is really the continuation of last week’s story, we are told of the priesthood given as a reward to Pinchas for killing the insurrectionary leader of the tribe of Shimon and his consort, a Midianite woman. We are also told, finally, the names of the two who were killed. On virtually every word in this episode, there is a midrash which registers the people’s protest against Pinchas’ action. Even the mere narration of Pinchas’ lineage brings about ad hominem attacks, who is this outsider who dares kill a tribal leader? So, what one sees from the various midrashic readings both defending and attacking Pinchas, is a sense of ambiguity about the episode and its potential implications when “learned from” in other situations. One can imagine what countless sermons in Brooklyn and the settlements will sound like. But what seems obvious to lesser minds remains problematic to Hazal. Thus, what I would like to do today is entirely sidestep the idea of supporting or attacking Pinchas, and look at two related takes on this episode, that of the Izhbitzer in the Mei Hashiloach, and that of the Kozhnitzer Maggid in his Avodat Yisrael, both of which utilize the concept of gilgul nishamot, of transmigration, “met-him-pike-hoses”, as Mrs. Bloom pronounces it in Joyce’s Ulysses.

A few words of prologue. This week, on my bench in the lab I found some books on gilgul nishamot, which made me think that the Kabbala Research Center people had come around. On closer inspection, this nouveau Haredi looking book was actually left by the Israeli Hari Krishna society (I suppose, much like Stalinism, certain popular trends take a bit longer to fade in Israel). This idea, of gilgul nishamot is a sort of fringe one in Jewish thought, that everyone knows about but few care to discuss seriously. I’m not really interested in the legitimization of the idea, rather in the lessons that application of the concept leads to. Returning to the India reference, samsara is evoked in order to provide an answer for why the evil prosper and the good suffer–don’t worry, the sinful will get theirs in the next life. While this is very enchanting on its own, it has of course institutionalized racism and mistreatment of the poorer castes, who clearly, were born into that status to compensate for previous live’s sins. Thus, feel free to oppress them, it is for the good of all.

In Judaism, the most developed usage of the concept is in Lurianic Kabbalah. In the writings of R. Haim Vital, student of the Ar’I, there are whole itemized lists of who reincarnated as who over the course of Jewish history. This was popularized in several places, but one of the most widely distributed was in the Hesed L’Avraham, the grandfather of the Hida, and I will quote from there:

Zimri reincarnated as Rabbi Akiva, and the 24,000 people who died in the plague (as a result of the Midianite women episode) were the 24,000 students of R. Akiva who died between Passover and Shavuout (the Omer period). The wife of the Roman general Turnus Rufus, was the gilgul of Cuzbi herself, who converted to Judaism and helped establish the yeshiva of R. Akiva afterwards! The Rama M’Fano adds an intermediate step whereby Cuzbi is also Ahab’s evil foreign wife, Jezebel.

This information was used by the Izhbitzer in his reading of our episode. According to him, the structural movement, whereby a foreign woman of noble birth needed to encounter a great leader of the Jewish people, then enter Jewish history in a positive role, was preordained from the beginning of creation. This could very well have been the outcome of the Zimri-Cuzbi relationship. This was almost realized by Zimri himself, who after all, according to our sources was a great leader of an entire tribe and not someone who should have fallen in such an ignominious manner. In fact, to some degree Zimri was being manipulated into this relationship, much the way Yehuda was led into marrying Tamar- the Izhbitzer explains that he was a holy man who was so amazed at the appearance of lust in him that he was certain that it could be naught but part of Gd’s plan! Pinchas, on the other hand, was not privy to such otherworldly operations- he knew that what he saw at that moment was wrong and acted accordingly. Gd reveals to Pinchas later that he didn’t just kill a plotting upstart, but revealed to him just what was at stake here, but agrees with Pinchas that the timing was wrong, rewards Pinchas for his correct reflexes, and reschedules this moment for a more opportune time, at the time of Rabbi Akiva and the ex-wife of the notorious general Turnus Rufus.

What is the underlying message of this approach? I know there are many readers here who have teachings based on this Mei Hashiloach, so I am willing to open this to discussion. I discussed this with R. Shlomo Carlebach several years ago, and to my suggestions about of the role of doubt in the Izhbitzer, he replied, Oh, no, the Izhbitzer was a very confident person, but did not elaborate. Thus, I will leave the issue of doubt for now, and only recall the showbiz adage on how timing is everything. This very same redemptive movement, one which might have been a Torah episode teaching us the beauty of outreach, becomes contaminated with lust and a destructive story of temptation. I might suggest that this failure of proper action is present in the Midianite women episode as a whole. Is it possible that had the people acted differently there might have been an entirely different outcome? A mass precursor of the book of Ruth?

This idea, incidentally, of desire reflecting a pressure instilled in a person as a Divine mechanism meant to obtain certain necessary outcomes, is seen in an interestingly progressive reading of the Ar”I on the subject of the Captive War Brides in Ki Teze. There he explains that the holy soldier, who is only qualified to go out in Torah combat because he is on such a high spiritual level, would never normally have desires of this sort. If, he finds that such a passion is aroused within him after the battle, it means that the woman he is about to bring into the fold is a soul that was meant to be a part of the Jewish people, but just had to come back through a somewhat more complicated route, as suggested in the Saba episode in the Zohar on Mishpatim. (Hence the phrase there says, v’shavita shivyo, a soul that belonged once to the Jewish people).

The Avodat Yisrael adds an interesting twist. He states that while on the one hand this episode was a failure, as we saw above, there was a rectification in this ending, hence the repeated use of the term peace in regard to Pinchas. To the AY, Cuzbi was a gilgul of Dina, and Zimri of Shechem. For Shechem tried to defend his crime of rape by claiming that it was not his fault that he was the son of Hamor, and of bad background, so he could not be held responsible for coarse and violent responses to the awakening of desire, and it was not his fault that Dinah resisted, since she was of holy stock, daughter of Jacob. So, Gd reversed the roles. Now, Shechem got to be the leader of a tribe in Israel, and Dinah a Midianite, yet still, the same action is perpetrated (the Midrash states that Cuzbi was an unwilling victim, dragged by her hair in front of Moshe). Neither genetics nor society is to blame; a person cannot defend horrible crimes such as rape from any other perspective than his own culpability. And, the victim is NOT to blame, a position which I argued earlier in Perashat Vayeshev.

Let us hope for peace, without the need for violence, without the need to prove anything first, speedily in our days. *sigh*

2. Truth, Justice, and the Daughters of Zelophad

After the unpleasant events of the early part of this week’s perasha, we are presented with a census, and then with the following episode: 27:1 The daughters of Zelophad, of the tribe of Menashe, came forward to Moshe, and stood before Moshe, Elazar the Kohen, the tribal lairds, and all the people, at the entrance to the Ohel Moed, and declared that their father, who was not part of the Korach Insurrection, died without sons. They were concerned that only male offspring would inherit in the new land, and their family would be eradicated from the tribe. Moshe, instead of answering immediately, took their case before Gd, who ruled on their behalf, leading Gd to state that “correctly do the daughters of Zelophad speak” (not the kind of legitimation most of us get at any point in our lives’)

Before getting to the central issue, which has something to say to us both in terms of the democratic process and our relation to Oral Law, I can’t resist presenting a teaching by the Or Pnei Moshe that is “cute” in terms of our contemporary fascination with the textuality of lived experience. The Or Pnei Moshe explains that the whole episode of the daughters of Zelophad was brought about because of a textual operation. In verse 26:33, we are told that Zelphad “didn’t have sons, only daughters” and their names are given. However, in 26:46, the verse states simply, “the daughter of Asher was named Serah”, and as the Ramban points out, this is mentioned in order to include her family among those who will inherit land. Now, when the daughters of Zelophad “saw” that they were textualized in a manner different from Serah, that there were written up in the Torah as “only daughters”, they realized they had to act. So which is primary, the event or the text?

While we are sidetracking, it is worth noting that Zelophad is certainly one of those people who get a bum rap. We don’t really know anything about him, but the Jerusalem Talmud quoted in Tosafot reads him as being the fellow who was executed at the end of Perashat Shelach for chopping wood on Shabbat. This has caught on, and while they read the episode in Zelophad’s favor, that he wanted to teach the people that Shabbat laws apply in the Wilderness, its still a bad rap, I think. Hence, I was pleased to see the Bat Ayin reading the verse here in an interesting manner: He explains the name Zelophad as comprising the letters Zel Pahad, which in English would mean Shadow Fear, or as the Bat Ayin explains, it means that this Zelophad was one who was so struck by the transience of human existence (like a shadow), that he died, saintly, absorbed in the contemplation of every word of Gd (thus, his “dying in the midbar”, wilderness, also spelling “dibbur”, word). And Zelophad, we are told, died “b’het’o”, contemplating his sins, always attempting to repent. Just felt compelled to present a vindicating reading for a fellow who can’t stand up against the midrashic accusations against him’

In contemporary political theory, there is a tendency to link political goals with moral ones, rational and universalist in nature. This is certainly the well meaning agenda of Habermas, in which uncorrupted and uncorrupted communication can lead to a rational basis for society. However, with a site set on goals for society, lofty as the dream of a moral society is, lies inherently the risk seen in other ideal societies, as we saw in the Communist workers paradise, or the French Revolution, where ideals take the place of process. Rather than a moral society, or a perfect set of rules, contemporary political thinkers resist imposition of “any attempts at closure”, which will thus “guarantee that the dynamics of the democratic process will be kept alive”. Chantal Mouffe continues (in The Turn To Ethics, Routledge 2000, pp 93):

Instead of trying to erase the traces of power and exclusion, democratic politics requires that they be brought to the fore, to make the moment of decision visible so that decisions and their effects can enter the terrain of contestation, the great virtue of modern pluralist democracy is, as Claude Lefort has argued, its recognition and institutionalization of division and conflict.

She continues, arguing for a democracy based not on an ethics of harmony, but on an ethics of “dis-harmony”.

Returning to our episode, why is it that Moshe had to turn to Gd to get an answer to query of the daughters of Zelophad? He explains that the goal of the giving of Torah was so that the life envisioned there be carried out in actuality, not as theory. For this to occur, injustice in society has to be recognized, and corrected. The just society is based on the possibility of change, of process, of continually responding to the needs of the oppressed. The Sefat Emet explains that the action taken by the daughters of Zelophad, of altering potential injustice, was the first instance of the Oral Law, of the Torah She’b'al Peh. Thus, the Sefat Emet explains, Gd responds to their appeal by saying “ken benot Zelophad dovrot”, correctly have they spoken, with the word “ken” implying correctness as well as “so be it”–in other words, because of their words so shall the law be. This is what the Jewish Oral Law is meant to be- a process for the better living based on the human striving for justice.

Thus, the operative definition of “Oral Law” is to respond to injustice and create a structure whereby injustice can be minimized, or preferably rectified entirely. The daughters of Zelophad provide the signal case where a legal oversight would have led to suffering, but the outcry led to new legislation. This outcry is institutionalized in the Jewish system, as a preventative against “the expressionless (das Ausdrocklose)”, a phrase found in Benjamin but read by Shoshana Felman as:

…those whom violence has deprived of expression; those who, on the one hand, have been historically reduced to silence, and who, on the other hand, have been historically made faceless, deprived of their human fac- deprived, that is, not only of a language and a voice but even of the mute expression alwasy present in a living human face… (The Juridicial Unconscious, pp 13).

Quoting Benjamin directly:

“In all mourning there is the deepest inclination to speechlessness, which is infinitely more than the inability or disinclination to communicate”.

This “infinitely more” is what the Hassidic masters opposed in their reading of this episode. The Tiferet Shelomo, also taking note of the unusual phrase, “Ken benot Zelophad dovrot” referred to earlier, points out that the phrase is repeated in the epilogue to this story. The tribe of Joseph, to whom Zelophad was a card carrying member, was afraid that if all these daughters got this land and married members of other tribes, they would ultimately lose this territory. Thus, once again the claim was brought by Moshe before Gd (ultimately, every legal statement, or for that matter, every recorded statement, potentially opens up whole new readings and necessitates new definitions, etc), and Gd once again agreed, using the same language- “ken mateh Yosef medabrim”, “correctly does the leadership of the tribe of Joseph speak”, and suggested that they marry within the tribe. The Tiferet Shelomo reads another message in this unusual language. He reminds us that the tribal ancestor, Joseph, was the archetype of the injustly prosecuted victim, having been locked up on false charges in the Egyptian prisons for twelve long years.In our contemporary conceptions of righteousness, we would imagine that long suffering Joseph, who bore his travails with silence and faith, would be an image worthy of emulation. However, the Tiferet Shelomo reads this differently.He states that the word “ken”, which is normally read as “correctly”, should be, with the rest of the phrasetranslated more as “yippee, the people of Joseph are finally speaking”. Gd wanted Joseph to cry out, to protest the injustice which had been perpetrated upon him. Perhaps had he done so, cried out and fought the unfairness of his fate, the system might have been changed and the whole story would have turned out better. The evils of the system need to be fought, to evoke resistance and transformation, rather than “grinning and bearing it”. Thus, when finally his descendants learned to protest injustice rather than mutely, “expressionlessly” accepting it, Gd was, as it were, relieved. Finally the people had demonstrated that they were ready to begin a new society- when they could legitimately recognize and resist injustice, even when it seemed to emanate from the most powerful authority.

Mark H. Kirschbaum, MD, is a hematology and cancer specialist based in Duarte, CA.
tags: Torah Commentary   
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