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Parashat Pinchas 5772 – 07/11/2012

Parashat Pinchas


Submitted by Robert Rabinoff

To these shall the Land be divided as an inheritance, according to the number of names.  For the numerous one you shall increase its inheritance, and for the fewer one you shall lessen its inheritance; each one according to his count shall his inheritance be given.  Only by lot shall the Land be divided, according to the names of their fathers’ tribes shall they inherit.  According to the lot shall one’s inheritance be divided, between the numerous and the few.  (26:53-55)

Ramban’s comment on this passage is one of the longest in his entire Torah commentary.  Indeed, there is substantial discussion among the Sages of the Talmud, and among the commentators throughout the ages, on the subject of exactly how the Land of Israel was apportioned amongst the incoming Israelite nation.  The discussion between Rashi and Ramban centered on the issue of whether each tribe got the same size parcel, and when the parcel was divided among the individual families in the tribe, the larger families got more and the smaller families got less, or whether the size of each tribe’s portion was proportional to the population of that tribe, so that each individual got the same size parcel.  Clearly there is enough ambiguity in the verses (and the narrative in the book of Joshua, where the Land is actually divided) that there is plenty of room for disagreement.

The question is, why does it matter?  The method of division of the Land must surely have been clear enough to those actually doing the dividing, and of course once it was done, it was done.  And when Mashiach comes, may it be speedily in our day, and restores all the tribes of Israel, and we all return to the Land, presumably, having accomplished all that, he will be able to apportion the Land properly!  Obviously there are lessons that are still relevant to us, or we wouldn’t have these matters in Torah.

It seems clear that Gd’s intent in dividing the Land among the tribes was that each tribe should have a specific portion.  Anyone who has been to Israel has experienced the wide range of ecological diversity in such a small area.  Deserts in the south, lush valleys in the north, mountains and lowlands, seashore, lakes, the Dead Sea.  Each region has its own character and each region has its own challenges.  Our tradition tells us that each of the 12 tribes has its own character.  We are all Jews, to be sure, all brothers and sisters, yet each of us comes from one of the 12 tribal ancestors, and carries a slightly different “DNA signature.”  (It has been demonstrated that Jewish men who identify as Kohanim, and are therefore descended in the paternal line from Aharon, share some distinctive genetic markers, presumably on the Y chromosome.)  Presumably most Jews (other than Kohanim or Levi’im) nowadays are from the tribes of Yehuda or Binyamin, and not from the “10 lost tribes.”  There is a tribe in eastern India that identifies itself as Jewish and calls itself B’nei Menashe / Children of Menassah; there is an organization that is investigating their history and attempting to bring them to Israel, so it is certainly possible that as we come closer to the time of Mashiach that other tribes will begin to come out of the woodwork. (for more information: )

The Jewish people can only fulfill its mission when each of its tribes fulfills its own specific mission.  And just as Israel as a whole can only fulfill its mission properly when it is on its own Land, so, apparently, must each tribe be on its own piece of the Land.  That is, there appears to be a match between the characteristics of each section of the Land of Israel and the corresponding segment of the people of Israel, such that the people get exactly the challenges they need and exactly the tools they need to meet those challenges.  Thus we find in our Parashah that the tribes of Reuven and Gad see that the land on the East bank of the Jordan, which had been conquered from Sichon and Og (in a defensive war, incidentally), is “good for cattle, and your servants have much cattle.”  Therefore they request, and are given, this part of the Land as their portion.  Furthermore, after Gd confirms that the five daughters of Tzelophechad (who had no sons) are to be allowed to inherit their father’s portion, the other members of their tribe (Menashe) point out to Moshe that if they marry men from another tribe, the land allotted to Menashe would be inherited by their husbands and would therefore pass from tribe to tribe.  Gd responds by requiring the five, and any other woman who will inherit under the same scenario, to marry within their husband’s tribe, specifically to prevent such movement.  Finally, there is the evidence of the Yovel (Jubilee) year, when each individual returns to his ancestral holding – the Land cannot be alienated in perpetuity, and conversely, individuals and tribes cannot be alienated from their lands in perpetuity.

Perhaps the most telling point to underscore the connection of each tribe with its portion is the fact that the portions are to be assigned by lot, certainly on the tribal level, and likely on the family level as well.  We think of a lottery as the quintessential set of chance events.  The Biblical view of casting lots is almost exactly the opposite – through the lottery Gd’s Will is determined.  That is, we certainly see no way of controlling the outcome of the lottery from our side, yet the assumption is that in fact the outcome of the lottery is not chance.  In fact, we find several places in Scripture where lots are cast specifically to determine Gd’s Will, or to figure out why something went wrong.  For example, when 36 Jewish soldiers fell at the battle at Ai, Joshua cast lots to find the sin/sinner responsible for the breach in our moral armor.  Similarly Saul cast lots to determine who broke the oath he had imposed on the people during a battle with the Philistines – it turned out it was his own son, Jonathan, who had not heard the vow.  Perhaps the most famous lottery in Scripture is the one our adversary Haman used to fix the day for our annihilation.  Again, Gd selected the perfect day – Purim – for us to be able to defend ourselves, and Gd turned Haman’s plans back on his own head.

The question arises, why does Gd choose to speak to us through a lottery, rather than through a prophet?  Except for the Purim story prophecy was alive and well in all these cases of the lottery, and even the Urim and Tumim could have been consulted.  Perhaps Purim gives as a hint.  Actually, I am writing just a few days after Purim, and we just read Megillat Esther.  Our Sages ask “where do we find a hint about Esther in the Torah?  From the words (Devarim 31:18), “Va-Anokhi haster astir, I shall surely hide [My face…].” (Chullin 139b)  Of course Megillat Esther is the only book of Scripture where Gd is not mentioned at all, at least not explicitly (there is a tradition that mentions of “the King” without the name Ahashuerus refers to Gd, but this is only on the level of an indirect hint), so Gd is indeed “hidden” in Megillat Esther.  What does it mean for Gd to be “hidden”?  Clearly Gd is everywhere; the creation exists within Gd and not vice versa.  Yet when our awareness is focused on the crude, outward forms and phenomena of creation, and our mind is taken up with satisfaction of physical desires, we are unable to perceive Gd’s presence.  We feel ourselves bound by the laws of nature, which are amoral and whose effects on us are uncertain – to our perception the world is governed by chance occurrences.  Thus, in Megillat Esther Queen Vashti just happens to pick this time to thumb her nose at Ahashuerus, and Esther just happens to become queen in her place, leaving her in a position to relate the plot of Bigthan and Teresh that Mordechai just happened to overhear.  The King just happened to miss a night of sleep and his chamberlains just happened to turn to the right page of his chronicles, and Haman just happened to enter the court at the right moment.  That’s a lot of happenstance! 

What is Scripture telling us?  I think we’re being told that our perception of the surface value of creation, of the objects of creation and the laws governing their behavior, is not the be-all and end-all of perception.  We’re being challenged to look deeper.  We have all experienced what appeared at the time to be random, even insignificant events, that later, sometimes many, many years later, can be perceived as turning points – small pushes that changed our entire direction because they came at just the right time.  I think the lesson of the lottery is just the opposite from what we normally think it is – the lesson is that nothing is random: the universe is structured and maintained by Gd’s infinite intelligence to provide us with an ideal environment to pull back the curtains behind which Gd is hiding and meet Him directly.


Pirke Avot, Chapter 1

Mishnah 18

Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel said: The world exists due to three things: Justice, truth and peace.

Rabbi Lau points out that truth is that which never changes; thus, there is really only one Truth in the world, and that is Gd, as our Sages say: The seal of the Holy One, Blessed is He, is truth” (Shabbat 55a).  Sadly, our world may be based on the absolute Truth of Gd’s existence, but that Truth is very deeply hidden behind layer after layer of coverings and veils.  The masks we don at Purim are symbolic of this fact.  The entire creation, in fact, is simply a mask behind which Gd hides and challenges us to find Him.  At first we need to look behind the masks, to transcend the Creation in order to find the Creator.  Eventually though, our perception becomes refined enough that the Creation itself becomes as if transparent, gossamer, sheer, and we see it as nothing more than a very thin surface layer of activity resting on these three great pillars.  Then Gd is no longer hidden and His Truth shines through the fog of materiality, lighting it up for our enjoyment.