Parashat Pinhas

Numbers 25:10-30:1
July 19, 2008 / 16 Tammuz 5768

This week’s commentary was written by Rabbi Lisa B. Gelber, associate dean, The Rabbinical School, JTS.

Not long ago, I set out in the middle of the night to ascend Haleakala, known as the world's largest dormant volcano (actually, it's not really a volcano, but that's another conversation entirely). In the center is a crater large enough to hold the entire island of Manhattan. The ride along Haleakala Crater road has at least thirty-three switchbacks and passes through a number of climate zones. I, like many other tourists, got out of my comfortable bed at 2:30 a.m. to make the trip from sea level to more than 10,000 feet (a drive of about two-and-a-half hours) so that I might see the sunrise from the top of the mountain. Admittedly, I was a bit skeptical. After all, having borne witness to the sunrise at Masada, a place with which I felt a historical and narrative connection, I wasn't sure what this particular sunrise would do for me. Nevertheless, with map in hand, I got into the van and drove out onto the main road quite early in the morning.

At first, the only lights on the road were those of the headlights on my car. It was then that I noticed the absence of lights along the highway: it was really dark. No tall posts with lightbulbs leaning out over the road. And, strangely, I thought, no other cars or trucks seemed to be joining me on this journey. Clearly, I wasn't in New York anymore. After a while, other vehicles appeared along the highway. About halfway through the winding thirty-seven mile ascent, I started to really pay attention to the stars sparkling in the darkened sky. While I wish I had taken astronomy in college, whether I could name the constellations or not seemed irrelevant as I kept one eye on the road, one out the window entranced by the sky, and both hands clutched tightly to the wheel of the car. If only I had a long net (and could pry my hands off of the wheel!), I was sure I could scoop some of those stars up to carry them home.

I reached the visitors’ lot, not far below the actual summit of the mountain, grabbed my camera and a bottle of water, wrapped myself in a blanket (the temperature dropped about three degrees every 1,000 feet) and started to hike. Up a hill and around a bend, I found a "comfortable" seat on some rocks and watched the sky begin to brighten. The crescent moon moved aside to make way for the numerous hues of the sun: orange and red filled the sky. Even with my sunglasses on, I began to see spots and had to turn away. I closed my eyes for a moment, and then, as I looked around in all directions, I took in the panoramic view. The power of the early morning bracha in which we praise God for enabling us to distinguish between day and night was not lost on me. With the lightened sky, Lana’i out in the distance, the clouds below and the red and charcoal hues of the cinder cones along the mountain, I felt as though I were standing on top of the world, looking down on creation (as the Carpenters’ song goes).

It is with this experience in mind that I read two significant verses from this week's parashat, Pinhas. "Vayomer Adonai el Moshe, aleh el har ha'avareem hazeh; u'ray et ha'aretz asher natatee leev'nay yisrael" (God said to Moses, Go up this mountain of Avareem and see the land which I gave to the Children of Israel) (Bemidbar, 27:12). "V'raeetah otah. V'ne'esafta el amecha, gam atah; ka'asher ne'esaf Aharon acheecha" (You shall see it, and you too shall be gathered to your people, as was your brother Aaron gathered in) (Bemidbar 27:13). God tells Moses to ascend this mountain, and from that place he shall see the gift that God has bestowed upon the people of Israel with clarity. I imagine Moses climbing the mountain, the darkened sky brilliant with stars. Leaning on his staff, he places each foot tenderly upon the earth beneath his feet, each step bringing him closer to the optimal view of the place for which he has striven, the land that marks the acquisition of his life's goal. Standing atop the mountain he shall truly see the land. Or HaChaim, Rabbi Chaim ben Attar (1696-1743), maintains that while "see" in the previous verse represented a physical act, this second reference to sight was one that would enable Moses to appreciate the deep spiritual essence of the experience. And so, here, on the top of the mountain, Moses stops to take in the wonder and the sadness of what lies before him. After all, he will not be journeying to the other side of the mountain; he can merely appreciate the glorious vista from afar.

Parashiyot Ha'azinu and v'Zot HaBracha name "this mountain" Har Nebo. Yet, I am taken with the name Har haAvareem. In the JPS Commentary for the book of Numbers, Jacob Milgrom states that Avareem is related to me'ever (across, or on the other side). “One who sees the view must be impressed by the grandeur of the eastern horizon” (21:10, p.175). It's noteworthy that it is only once Moses internalizes the view from the heights, of the other side, that he will be “gathered to his people,” as was his brother. We often stop here to argue with God on Moses's behalf that he be allowed to enter the land. Even if he rebelled, as God maintains in the following verse, shouldn't his work on behalf of the Lord outweigh that one incident? Yet, when we embrace verse 13 as an invitation to Moses to see not only with his eyes and his intellect, but also with his heart and his soul, it seems fitting that Moses, in that moment, be gathered to his people, moving from this world across into the next. It is almost as if, through the name of the mountain, God creates the space for Moses to embrace the euphemism for death (being gathered unto his people) and gently escorts him from one place in his life to the next.

My vision of Moses's experience, which, in this parashah, is merely a foretelling of what is to come, is one of thoughtful reflection, of the depth of sight. Having ascended the heights, Moses can see—uninterrupted. It is here that he can acknowledge the profundity of having brought the people of this Israel, alongside God, to the time and place that this awesome view represents. Anita Diamant's Saying Kaddish (p. 210) offers the following prayer by Debra Cash:

Build me up of memory,
loving and angry, tender and honest.
Let my loss build me a heart of wisdom,
compassion for the world's many losses.
Each hour is mortal
and each hour is eternal
and each hour is our testament.
May I create worthy memories
all the days of my life.

I like to think that these words (or at least their sentiment) belong to Moses as he prepares to ascend that mountain, his time and his work complete. It's worth our while, I believe, to take in the vistas of our lives and to note how it is that we arrive at the top of our individual mountains. Some day, we too will be gathered unto our people. Until then, may we experience clarity of vision that reflects a depth of experience, a lifetime's worth of memories to carry us through into the future.

The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.