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R' Feldman's Derasha - Parashat Pinchas (July 27, 2019)

07/30/2019 11:13:27 AM


If it looks like a grab-bag of topics in the Parasha, look again.  There are five parts of the Parasha -- the reward of Pinchas, the counting of the Jews, the story of the daughters of Tzalafchad, the appointment of Yehoshua, and the run-down of the extra offerings for the holidays.  They all have one thing in common: the theme of substitution, or succession. The Parasha is about the transition that has taken place in the final year in the desert, and all of its parts show off succession.

To begin, the reward Pinchas receives for the act at the end of last week’s Parasha is the unique ability to “qualify” as a Kohen.  He becomes part of the line of Kehuna by jumping the line.  As I want to talk about more in a minute, the act that earned him that status was a sacrifice.  Pulling that off showed that he belonged among the priests, or those who regularly substitute one thing for another.

The counting of the Jews here at the end of the book is a lot like that in the beginning.  But it’s a new generation. The number is about the same but it’s a whole new group. The original generation has given way to the new one.  This is the great succession of the book, from the generation that came out of Egypt to the new one that is ready to go into the land.  

The daughters of Tzalafchad are a clarification of how succession works in a case where a family has no sons.  The daughters come forward to claim their place in succession from their father to the next generation.

The scene with Yehoshua is obviously about succession from the leader who took them out of Egypt to the one who will bring them into Israel.  The last section of the Parasha, the extra offerings on the Chagim, refers as well to substitution. All of the offerings of the Torah are a type of substitution.  The Ramban points out that the sin offering is the most literal example of substitution among the sacrifices. The bearer of a sin offering acknowledges that it should be them -- and not the animal -- that deserves to be sacrificed.  The other offerings use the same mechanism to achieve the same statement as a substitute for whatever is “owed.”  

This overall theme explains a sub-plot in the counting of the tribes.  A few times in the midst of the counting, there are short pauses to recount an historic episode.  Korach’s allies come up in the counting of the tribe of Reuven. Er and Onan re-appear in the counting of the tribe of Yehuda.  Nadav and Avihu come up in the midst of counting the Levi’im. Of all of the incidents in the desert and before, why are these singled out?  Because each of them have something to do with a challenge to succession. They believe succession needs to be sped up (Nadav and Avihu) or diverted (Korach) or thwarted (Er and Onan).   

All successions are fraught.  We know that the transition from Moshe to Yehoshua, which comes up in the Mishna we’re learning this afternoon, was not as smooth as we would want.  Moshe gave over all he had but Yehoshua did not take it all in; Halachot were lost and had to be re-discovered. This succession is the model, however, in that it involves the transfer of plenty in both quantity and quality.  Transfer is more precarious when it is attempted with trace amounts. Franz Kafka, in a letter to his father, bemoaned his father’s attempts to give over Judaism in their household -- “you had so little to give, it dribbled out of your fingers as you tried to hand it over.”  

The Gemora in Daf Yomi that began this week covers the subject of Temura, or substitution.  It gives insight into how transfer can work.  The idea is that the Torah forbids one from trying to switch out one animal for another in sacrifices.  Both going up in quality and going down are forbidden. If one tries to do it anyway, it does not take hold.  But what does take place is that the holiness that adheres to the animal that was already sanctified spreads to the one that one tried to substitute in.  One sees that holiness spreads. It can indeed be transferred from one to the other. If one is holy, it can be infectious.

Fri, August 14 2020 24 Av 5780