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Chancellor's Parashah Commentary

Parashat Pinhas 5755
Numbers 25:10 - 30:1
July 22, 1995     24 Tammuz 5755

Ismar Schorsch is the chancellor of The Jewish Theological Seminary.

Experience often has a way of eroding our ideals. While the evidence for this sad fact abounds, I wish to illustrate it anew in the exegetical fate of a passage in this week's parasha. The parasha concludes with a succinct statement of the sacrifices to be offered in the Tabernacle throughout the year.

The midrash construes the instructions as part of the preparations for the conquest of Israel. After 40 years of aimless wandering, the generation of former slaves has expired and their hearty children now find themselves on the plains of Moab across the Jordan, facing Jericho (Numbers 26:63–67). The rules governing the distribution of land are spelled out in advance of the invasion, as is the sacrificial system which will secure God's favor and protection in the new home.

What is noteworthy in this list of sacrifices is the difference between Passover and Succot. Both festivals lasted for seven days with a menu of prescribed sacrifices for each day. However, in contrast to the menu for each day of Passover, which was identical, that of Succot changed from day to day. Specifically, the number of bulls to be sacrificed each day decreased by one. The first day of Succot called for 13 bulls, along with 2 rams and 14 yearling lambs. The second day called for 12 bulls, the third for 11, down to 7 bulls on the seventh and last day of Succot (Sh'mini Azeret being a festival unto itself). The number of rams and lambs remained the same throughout.

Such a sacrificial variable could not go unnoticed by the Rabbis and, indeed, Rabbi Elazar observed that altogether there were a total of 70 bulls offered on Succot for the welfare of the 70 nations of the world. Elsewhere Rabbi Pinhas is quoted to the same effect: that the 70 bulls for the 70 nations would prevent the world from ever being depopulated; or in still another text, that they might dwell in peace. In the same spirit, Rabbi Yohanan declares that the destruction of the Temple by the Romans is a calamity for the gentiles as well as the Jews, because it was there on Succot that Jews solicited God to forgive all the nations.

To complete the picture, I need to mention that ascribing to Succot a universal thrust was probably facilitated by two prior factors: First, it was common for the Rabbis to refer to the rest of humanity in terms of the round number 70. Second, Succot had already been identified by the Mishnah as the annual time when God determined how much rain would fall during the coming year. With the conclusion of the harvest festival came not only joy over the bounty garnered but anxiety over the rainfall to come. To pray for rain, as we still do on Succot, was to seek a blessing for all the residents of Israel and not just its Jewish inhabitants.

By the time we come to Rashi in the 11th century (d. 1105), the universal spin given to Succot by the Rabbis is gone. In his comment to Numbers 29:18, he explains the significance of the 70 bulls in a strikingly different way: "The number alludes to the 70 nations of idolaters who steadily dwindle and decline, a sign of their destruction. In the days of the Temple [the 70 bulls] served to protect them against affliction." Rashi thus stresses the daily reduction in the number of bulls offered on the altar. The pattern suggests to him the eventual demise of the collective other, Israel's idolatrous neighbors and enemies.

I have been unable to find any anticipation of this narrow and hostile interpretation by Rashi in rabbinic literature and suspect that it originated with him. He too seems clearly aware that his reading of the symbolism of 70 is a marked departure from the universalistic one of the Rabbis. That is why he feels obliged to tell us that they attributed a meaning to Succot which he has abandoned. What prompted Rashi to convert Succot from an expression of generous universalism to nasty particularism, I believe, was the experience of the First Crusade in 1096 which he witnessed toward the end of his life. The unexpected havoc wreaked by the crusaders on Jewish life in the Rhineland and along the Danube portended an ominous new chapter for Jews living in exile among Christians. The recognized centers of feudal power could no longer protect their Jewish subjects from a mob infected with uncontrollable religious fervor. Gently Rashi gave voice to his angst by finding in Succot a note of parochial consolation unseen before. Recent history had left him scarred and embittered.

In a similar vein last week, a group of Orthodox religious leaders known as the Union of Rabbis for the Land of Israel tarnished Judaism by calling on Israeli soldiers to defy orders by their commanders to withdraw from military bases on the West Bank as part of the peace process. Unprecedented and profoundly disruptive, the declaration suddenly made of retaining possession of every last square inch of the land of Israel the single most important commandment of Judaism, taking priority over the halakhic principle of obeying the laws of a duly constituted government and over the values of peace and human life. That order of priorities, however, is a radical inversion of Jewish values. It may have been enunciated by learned rabbis, but it is quite indistinguishable from the militant nationalism of aggrieved ethnic groups across Europe.

The Judaism that I know and love sets the pursuit of peace and the regard for human life above all else. God rewards Pinhas, the grandson of Aaron, at the beginning of our parasha for his zeal in defending God's laws with God's greatest gift, the promise of peace (shalom), the ultimate bearer of all blessings and the most widely used word in the Jewish vocabulary. Our daily prayers are laced with pleas for and references to shalom. While we fulfill other mitzvot only when they come our way, Judaism enjoins us to go out actively and create peace. To sit back and wait for peace to fall into our lap is itself a transgression. And, of course, the supreme value of human life is established by the striking halakhic injunction to set aside every ritual observance in a situation where someone's life is in danger.

I do not deny that the peace process is fraught with risks. But I also know that to do nothing, to continue to impose Israeli rule on a Palestinian population incontrovertibly opposed to it can only lead to ethnic cleansing. The real threat to Judaism and Israel posed by the Union of Rabbis is that implicitly they would have Jews become Serbs in the name of Judaism to retain control of the Holy Land at any cost.

Without Judaism, Zionism would never have arisen a century ago, a necessary though not sufficient cause. Basic Jewish values have also prevented it thus far from becoming but another instance of unbridled modern nationalism. The non–observant Mr. Rabin is closer to the spirit of Judaism than his rabbinic critics.

Shabbat shalom u–mevorach,

Ismar Schorsch


The publication and distribution of Dr Schorsch's commentary on Parashat Pinhas have been made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z"l) Hassenfeld.