Parashat Pinhas

Pinhas in America?

The Torah portion deals with intermarriage, a problem we know all too well today.

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Yet the very next episode in the narrative brings a stark reversal of Israel's fortune. For the Torah, with its hard-nosed view of reality, stability is never a long lasting human condition. At Shittim, Israelite men begin to mix with Moabite women, even to the point of joining them in their pagan rites. The midrash sees the hand of Balaam behind this intermingling. Before he is unceremoniously dismissed by the irate king of Moab, Balaam advises him to erode Israel's apartness. Socializing will lead to intermarriage and apostasy. Soon what could only be done at first in secret will become publicly acceptable.

Thus the Torah recounts the romance of one mixed couple flaunted in full view (Numbers 25:6). Is Moses' conspicuous absence from this turn of events another sign of his growing weariness or of inner conflict springing from his marriage to Zipporah, herself a Midianite woman? The leadership vacuum is filled by Pinhas, the grandson of Aaron, who on his own kills the offending couple and halts the plague that has already consumed 24,000 lives. In gratitude, God rewards Pinhas (who bears an Egyptian name) for his zealotry with a promise of friendship and eternal priesthood (Numbers 25:12-13).

The midrash detects in the words of the opening story--vayeshev (settled down)--a touch of paradox. "When Israel settled down at Shittim, the people profaned themselves by whoring with Moabite women" (Numbers 25:1). Overtly, the verb suggests the end of a taxing journey, the delicious anticipation of a long and undisturbed rest. But, declares R. Yohanan, in truth, wherever the Torah uses the verb "vayeshev," the narrative that follows is filled with anguish and turmoil. For example, Jacob returns "to settle down (vayeshev) in the land where his father had lived, in the land of Canaan (Genesis 37:1)" after an arduous absence of 21 years in the house of Laban. What follows is hardly the respite he sought and deserved, but the bitter envy of his sons toward Joseph.

Similarly, Israel arrived at Shittim to rest prior to invading Canaan, and not to become entangled with the women of Moab. How often the course of events makes a mockery of our hopes!

Is America any different? Here too Jews came filled with the sentiments of vayeshev, to escape the antipathy and constrictions of a conflicted continent, where even the advocates of emancipation for Jews despised Judaism. Nor did this country fail us. Since the Second World War it has surely afforded Jews a measure of individual opportunity and collective freedom unprecedented in Jewish history. But will equality and prosperity be our undoing? Does the term vayeshev still carry the ominous ring of disaster? The escalating incidence of intermarriage is already decimating our ranks. What communal strategy can secure our collective identity without giving up on our individual equality?

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Rabbi Ismar Schorsch

Rabbi Ismar Schorsch served as chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary.