sunset at new york city
Back to Stories & Articles

Toward Shabbat: Pinhas

פִּֽינְחָ֨ס בֶּן־אֶלְעָזָ֜ר בֶּן־אַהֲרֹ֣ן הַכֹּהֵ֗ן הֵשִׁ֤יב אֶת־חֲמָתִי֙ מֵעַ֣ל בְּנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל בְּקַנְא֥וֹ אֶת־קִנְאָתִ֖י בְּתוֹכָ֑ם וְלֹא־כִלִּ֥יתִי אֶת־בְּנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל בְּקִנְאָתִֽי׃

לָכֵ֖ן אֱמֹ֑ר הִנְנִ֨י נֹתֵ֥ן ל֛וֹ אֶת־בְּרִיתִ֖י שָׁלֽוֹם׃

וְהָ֤יְתָה לּוֹ֙ וּלְזַרְע֣וֹ אַחֲרָ֔יו בְּרִ֖ית כְּהֻנַּ֣ת עוֹלָ֑ם תַּ֗חַת אֲשֶׁ֤ר קִנֵּא֙ לֵֽאלֹהָ֔יו וַיְכַפֵּ֖ר עַל־בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃

“Pinhas, son of Eleazar son of Aaron the priest, has turned back My wrath from the Israelites by displaying among them his passion for Me, so that I did not wipe out the Israelite people in My passion. 

Say, therefore, ‘I grant him My pact of friendship. 

It shall be for him and his descendants after him a pact of priesthood for all time, because he took impassioned action for his God, thus making expiation for the Israelites.’”

These are the opening words of this week’s parashah from God to Moshe. Pinhas’ passion refers to his zealous killing of an Israelite man and a Moabite woman for their immorality at the end of last week’s parashah.

God’s reward for Pinhas’ apparent extremism makes me, and many others over the centuries, uncomfortable.

The narrative of the parashah then moves into a census for the purpose of dividing the Promised Land between the different tribes. This section ends with a request by the daughters of Zelophehad to inherit the land of their father as he had no sons. God’s granting their request brings justice to women and offers a glimpse of change and hope for a more egalitarian community. The parashah closes with the establishment of the religious calendar and the sacrificial system.

Some of you may think of people you know when hearing this week’s parashah. Some may not feel comfortable with the opening verses, while others will identify with the more equitable and just aspects of later chapters. For me, Pinhas represents celebration and cycles. I don’t believe there is another parashah read so often throughout the year. As well as this week, the verses from the last two chapters are read on Rosh Hodesh, Pesah, Shavu’ot, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret, and Simhat Torah.

The Jewish calendar offers us a framework that is very present and helps us mark the various celebrations and commemorations in our lives. Although many of us might not feel that comfortable with the sacrificial system described in these final chapters, we still feel enveloped by the series of communal observances of our Jewish calendar which complements our own personal cadence and the patterns of our society at large.

Nina and I recently celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary, just weeks before our oldest child Aaron’s marriage. As a country, we will be celebrating Independence Day this weekend, just weeks after Juneteenth became a federal holiday. We live seemingly very linear lives, which we can enhance with meaning and purpose through the gifts of the rhythms in our Jewish tradition.

We are now in the period of mourning of three weeks that culminates with the commemoration of Tisha Be’Av, which will be followed weeks later with Rosh Hodesh Elul, which—with the daily sounding of the Shofar—will usher in the upcoming High Holy Days.

As a society, we celebrate history and look toward a better tomorrow. As Jews, we add this cyclical legacy that connects us with Jews all over the world and throughout time. From daily services to Shabbatot, from the new moon every month to the festivals throughout the year, from the sabbatical year every seven years to the Jubilee year every 49 years (which we are about to start this coming fall), I’m grateful for the flow of our calendar and for Parashat Pinhas, which accompanies us on our journey.

I invite you to join us on Shabbat to hear the verses of this very special parashah, some of which we’ll read again next Shabbat in celebration of Rosh Hodesh Menahem Av.