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    Why was God angry? – Pinchas

    July 5th, 2020

    The sidra says that Pinchas turned God’s anger away (Num. 26:11).

    Why was God angry? The obvious reason is that the people of Israel were caught up in a difficult situation and might succumb to moral temptation. By stepping into the fray Pinchas he showed his zeal for the Almighty.

    Rashi, however, offers an alternative point of view. He says that God was livid with the tribes of Israel who had spread rumours about Pinchas and criticised his genealogy, casting doubt on his lineage and saying that his grandfather had been an idol-worshipper.

    Why did Rashi get involved in genealogy and ascribe the criticisms to the tribes in general and not to the tribe of Shimon whose prince, Zimri, had been killed by Pinchas? Zimri certainly deserved to be punished for openly consorting with Kozbi, a Midianite woman, in the Israelite camp.

    The Lubavitcher Rebbe thinks the tribes were only trying to uphold the honour of Moses and Aaron and their attack on Pinchas was motivated by suspicion that there were inherited flaws in his character which led him to act rashly.

    God would have preferred Pinchas to remember that he was a kohen and should not need special Divine help.


    A mouth of brass – Pinchas

    July 5th, 2020

    Only five of the fifty-four sidrot are named after people, beginning with No’ach in the book of Genesis.

    This current sidra is named after Pinchas, and we can use this as a convenient moment to speak about protesting. Indeed, one of the interpretations of the name Pinchas is “mouth of brass”, suggesting that he is the forebear of those who mount protests.

    The Jewish doctrine of protest can be summarised in these ten commandments:
    1. Don’t remain silent. Even if you are not heard you have to give voice to your conscience.
    2. Instead of ranting, use “a disciplined tongue” (Isaiah 50:4).
    3. Rebuke out of love. The Torah says, “Do not hate your brother in your heart” (Lev. 19:17).
    4. Don’t tell people what to think: give them the facts and let them draw their own conclusions.
    5. Avoid overkill, in words and actions.
    6. Avoid violence: don’t hit people or destroy property, but persuade.
    7. Stick to the real agenda – don’t wrap up the issue in extraneous considerations.
    8. Don’t give up in the middle.
    9. Don’t make your own side the enemy.
    10. Don’t play God.


    The rival emotions

    July 5th, 2020

    The Jewish calendar has two groups of dates that battle with one another for the soul of the Jew.

    On the one hand there are the festivals, days of joy and happiness: on the other the fast days, which remind us of gloom and tragedy.

    Amongst the fasts are four which mark the destruction of the Temple and seem to create a cycle of sadness. Chief amongst these four fasts is Tishah B’Av, but the fast of 17 Tammuz, three weeks earlier, is a prominent date in the cycle.

    The rivalry between the feasts and the fasts is symbolised by two emotions – the lachrymose (the tearful) and the love and laughing.

    The way Jewish history has played out we see a trail of tragedy and fear that more is to come; we see a series of simchas and hope there will be many more of them.

    The Jewish spirit has, Baruch HaShem, made its choice, and we are an optimistic people who prefer dreams to nightmares.


    Balak & his friend Bilam – Balak

    June 28th, 2020

    Depiction of Balak and Balaam

    Midrashic literature has much to say (mostly negative) about Balak the king of Moab.

    Balak was not the son of a king but gained the throne in a coup. This had been prophesied by Bilam whom Balak offered to reward with money and status because he knew that Bilam – though a prophet – was a greedy materialist.

    Balak himself was not such a nice character. According to the sages, he was the kind of person who promises much but does little. The opposite is found in the righteous such as Abraham, who promise less but do more.

    Balak gained his people’s support because they expected great things from him but became thoroughly disillusioned.

    Balak was so hostile to Israel that he gave his own daughter as a seductive trap to entangle some of the Israelite people.


    Echoing Mah Tovu – Balak

    June 28th, 2020

    Synagogue procedure expands Bilam’s Mah Tovu with extra verses in praise of the Jewish place of worship.

    The verses include one that says, “I love the habitation of Your House, the place where Your glory dwells” (Psalm 26:8).

    What inspires this sentiment – the architecture, the singing, the words, the congregants?

    All are part of the answer, but the chief feature is not so much the ambience as the content of the worship service.

    In my early days in the pulpit I was close to a synagogue warden from the Continent who had settled in London and developed an admiration for the plaques affixed to countless buildings to record which famous person used to live there.

    He told me that he thought our synagogue ought to have a plaque that read, “This is the dwelling place of God”.

    I realised how moved he was by the probably indefinable air of that synagogue, but I also realised that more or less every synagogue could be described that way, and that more important than calling a synagogue a House of God was to make every part of the world a Divine dwelling place.

    Hence whenever I echo the Mah Tovu verses I apply the praise of the place of worship to every nook and cranny of Creation.