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Parashat Pinchas 5777 — 07/15/2017

Parashat Pinchas 5777 — 07/15/2017

Bamidbar 25:10-30:1

In our parashah we find the story of the daughters of Tzelofchad and their request to inherit their father’s portion of the Land of Israel.  Many interpret this as a breakthrough in women’s rights, or as a testimony to the daughter’s courage in standing up to the male hierarchy (Moshe, Aharon and the elders of Israel), or to their love of the Land of Israel.  Ramchal, as you might expect, takes a completely different approach.

The decree to die in the desert [RAR: after the sin of the spies, in parashat Shelach] therefore affected only the men of the generation [RAR: because the women all loved the Land of Israel and therefore were not guilty in the incident of the spies], and given that a man without his wife is only half a person, tumah attained only a partial grasp upon the generation that left Egypt.

In addition to the women of that generation, there were two male survivors as well, Yehoshua and Caleb. … Yehoshua and Caleb would serve as witnesses to the fact that the demise of the others was not a result of the force of tumah present in the desert, rather as a result of their own sins.  Tumah is subservient to kedusha and is only able to gain strength in the presence of sin – Yehoshua and Caleb were living testimony to this fact.

We have discussed the meaning of kedusha [holiness] and tumah [impurity], but I’d like to take another look at what I think Ramchal is saying here.  The Source of kedusha is Gd.  Gd is a unique whole, a Unity that is not composed of parts.  It may not be correct to say that Gd is completely integrated, but Gd is certainly not dis-integrated.  And the closer we come to Gd, the more integrated we find creation to be.  I think this is a good definition of kedusha – it is a state of integration of life, where all parts work together harmoniously to produce a greater whole.  Certainly those people who display greater holiness live a more integrated and harmonious life.

Tumah, on the other hand, is that which causes dis-integration, the opposite of kedusha.  We have discussed in the past that there is a relation between tumah and the Divine attribute of justice, dinDin provides boundaries for the outflow of Divine energy so that it can nourish creation rather than overwhelming it.  It is only when din becomes too harsh and rigid that it becomes tumah and ceases to nourish life.

Ramchal goes on to state that Tumah …  is only able to gain strength in the presence of sin… .  In other words, sin turns din into tumah.  How can we understand this?  First, what is sin?  There are several words for sin in Hebrew, basically corresponding to different levels of intentionality involved in the action, but the common factor among them is that the action contravenes Gd’s Will.  Our tradition tells us that Gd’s Will is the expansion of happiness, and that this happiness is actualized as closeness with Gd.  Closeness with Gd means a higher level of integration of life, more kedusha, less tumah.  If we sin, we weaken kedusha and strengthen tumah just in the very act of sinning.

I think there is another level in which sin and tumah are related.  Our Sages tell us that sin leaves a stain on the soul.  This “stain” is actually a deformity of some kind which actually affects our thinking and action.  On a physiological level, I think we can understand the process this way – since Gd’s Will stems from that Intelligence which created and maintains the entire universe, it is very difficult to oppose Gd’s Will – it is equivalent to opposing a rushing river, which leaves us battered, bruised, exhausted and no further upstream than we started.  This battering of the physiology also affects our ability to project useful thoughts and proper actions.

A simple example may help illustrate this point.  Most of us have played with a Slinky® at some time in our lives.  It works because of how flexible it is.  However, most of us have also pulled on a Slinky® too hard, at which point it no longer slinks – it has become stiff and unresponsive.  The human body works in a similar way – if we overload our system it becomes stiff and unresponsive – we no longer respond to inputs, we react to perceived threats, generally in a maladaptive way.  Our system bears the scars of that particular overload as deep-rooted stresses and strains, which prevent the system from operating properly and adaptively.

I think the soul also operates on a similar principle.  When we perform action in opposition to Gd’s Will, our soul is pulled away from Gd.  This is exactly opposite to the direction the soul wants to go and leaves a residue of stress and strain, so to speak, in the soul.  Perhaps this is what our Sages refer to as a “stain.”  Just as the stress and strain deposited in the body detract from its ability to function properly, so the deformations of the soul prevent it from doing its job, which is to draw closer to Gd and thereby increase the kedusha in the world.  In other words, sin brings more sin in its wake (Pirke Avot IV:2).  The more distorted our soul is, the more off-kilter our thoughts are, and the more likely we are to commit further sins and we get into a vicious cycle.  Tumah gains entrance through our sins, and grows stronger because of them, and the result is disintegration of life.

Fortunately, there is a way out of this vicious cycle.  Gd gave human beings free will, and therefore the ability to sin, but He also gave us the ability to do t’shuvah, to return to Him and thereby abandon the path of sin.  By connecting with the infinite Source of kedusha, we straighten out the kinks in our soul and fortify ourselves to meet future challenges.  It’s a process of course, not something instantaneous.  The sooner we start, the better off we will be!


Reflections on This Week’s Torah Portion

by Steve Sufian

Parashat Pinchas

To me, the central event in this parshah is Gd fulfilling Moses’ request to appoint someone to lead Bnei Israel into the Promised Land. Gd tells Moses to lay his hands on Joshua so that some of Moses’ spirit will enter Joshua and Joshua will be able to lead the people into the physical Promised Land. According to the Gemara the elders of the generation called this a “great embarrassment,” that Joshua was like the moon whereas Moses was like the sun.

Why did Gd appoint a leader who is less than Moses? who has only part of Moses’ spirit?

What can this mean in our lives?

I have not found satisfying answers to these questions, either in the Parshah, in commentaries on the Parshah, or in my own mind so I invite readers to suggest some thoughts on these questions.

My own assumption is that the Five Books of Moses, since they are the ones we read in 54 portions each year are sufficient to give us Teshuvah – if we take them on all four levels: the plain meaning, the symbolism, the comparison/analysis, and the divine insight.

From this point of view, since Joshua is to lead the people into the physical Promised Land he should symbolise a person living Teshuvah – Oneness. All people experiencing Teshuvah are One, none is greater or less than the other: this is why Teshuvah is Total Fulfillment.

Since Joshua is depicted as being less than Moses then he could not have been experiencing Teshuvah: how could he lead? It is like the nearsighted leading the even more nearsighted.

So I have not been able to decipher the reason that Gd appointed, through Moses’s laying on of hands, Joshua as the leader.

Do share your thoughts with me.

Baruch HaShem