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This theme of love, commitment, and passion runs throughout the parashah. In the opening verses, Phinehas, the grandson of Aaron, is awarded the covenants of priesthood and peace. What rendered him worthy of such an awesome honor? When God's Name was desecrated through acts of immorality and idol worship, Phinehas rose like a lion and put himself on the line; he jeopardized his life to champion the cause of God and thus restored sanctity to the nation. Phinehas rose from amid the assembly, teaching us that he could have waited on others to take action, but chose to act himself. If we truly care, if we are sincere in our love and faith, we will not be content to remain passive; we will find the strength to raise our voices and act. We live in a generation in which, for many, it is politically correct to be casual about everything. Yes, we protest, we love our Judaism, but how deep is our love? How committed are we? How much are we ready to sacrifice? How much are we prepared to give of ourselves?
There is an apt analogy to this: Imagine a sport that has only fans and no players. Even if those fans are devoted, the sport will eventually die out. Alas, too many of us have become fans. Too many of us are content to be passive spectators. But if our nation is to thrive, we need players who are ready to take the ball and run. Let us consider for a moment the single-minded commitment with which athletes train for the Olympics. Should we not at least invest the same energy in the greatest Olympics of all: our lives here on Planet Earth?
So, as Jews, the question that we must ask ourselves is, are we players or spectators?
STAND UP TO THE PLATE
In the opening verses of the parashah, we find that Hashem bestows His covenant of peace on Phinehas and promises him the priesthood for all time. And indeed, all the Kohanim Gedolim were the descendants of Phinehas.
In explaining why Phinehas was worthy of these two sacred gifts (peace and priesthood), the Torah states that "he took vengeance for his God." The unusual wording, "... his God," should give us all pause. After all, isn't the Almighty the God of everyone? In order to understand, it is important that we review the background against which this story unfolds.
Our Exodus from Egypt shook up the world. The Ten Plagues, the Splitting of the Reed Sea, manna falling from the heavens, water flowing from a rock, and later, the giving of the Torah, made the entire world aware of the existence of God. And yet, incredibly, with the exception of Jethro, the father-in-law of Moses, no one reacted. No one came to Sinai to declare his/her faith. Rather, the response from the nations was one of hatred and jealousy.
Balak, the king of Moab, could not contain his venom. He schemed to destroy our people. Knowing, however, that he could never defeat us on the battlefield, he commissioned the heathen prophet, Bilaam, to rain curses upon us. But God would not allow him to curse; when Bilaam witnessed the beautiful family life of the Jewish people, despite himself he proclaimed blessings.
Having failed to execute Balak's diabolical plan, Bilaam suggested that there was only one way to defeat the Jews, and that was to entice them to sin. And so, the most beautiful girls of Moab and Midian were enlisted to seduce the men of Israel. A terrible calamity ensued. Zimri, the prince of the tribe of Simon, took possession of Kozbi, the Midianite princess, and publically desecrated the Holy Name of God. There was total chaos; the nation stood stupefied in shock, and the very survival of our people was in jeopardy. No one took action - but Phinehas arose "from amid the assembly" and put an end to that horrific defilement. And here again the question arises. Why does the Torah emphasize "from amid the assembly"?
Very often, we gauge our action or inaction by comparing ourselves to others. If everyone is passive, we feel justified in being passive as well. Phinehas, however, did not allow the passivity of others to affect him. He rose to the occasion and acted on behalf of God, proving that indeed, God was his God.
We can all learn from Phinehas, and emulate him, even if it be in a small way. Peace cannot be attained through the Chamberlain tactics of appeasement and looking away. The Hebrew word for peace, shalom, comes from the word "shalem - complete," teaching us that peace can only be achieved if we give of ourselves completely and are willing to sacrifice to combat injustice. Phinehas reminds us that we must get involved, that we must protest when we behold debauchery, corruption, and evil; that we must learn to raise our voices and "stand up to the plate," for, in the end, we are all responsible for one another, and we all have to testify that God is our God.
CONVERTING HANDICAPS INTO ASSETS
Moses takes the census of all the tribes, and we find that, strangely, the tribe of Dan has almost 20,000 more people than the tribe of Benjamin. The remarkable growth of Dan is all the more astonishing since, initially, Benjamin had 10 sons while Dan had only one, Chushim, who also happened to be deaf.
Consider for a moment the thoughts and feelings that must have plagued Dan. How could his tribe equal the other tribes of Israel? He had only one son, and the boy was deaf. What would the future hold?
This week's portion teaches us never to despair and never to measure ourselves by others. We need only make a sincere effort, give of our best, and strive to fulfill our own unique mission; if we do so, the possibilities are limitless. Perhaps it was precisely because Chushim was deaf that he remained immune to the many confusing and misleading voices assailing the others. The Talmud teaches that, when the sons of Jacob came to bury their father in Hebron, Esau protested and demanded to see the deed to the Cave of the Machpelah, Naftali, noted for his swiftness, was commissioned by his brethren to return to Egypt for the deed. Chushim, who was deaf and not perturbed by Esau's bullying, was outraged by the lack of respect shown to his grandfather and attacked Esau, thus championing the honor of the Patriarch. The story of Chushim demonstrates that if we will it, our handicaps can become our assets and our burdens our inspiration. We need only have faith. And so it was that from that one son, Chushim, the tribe of Dan grew and multiplied and surpassed the others.
HOW DEEP IS OUR LOVE?
The five daughters of Zelophehad, of the tribe of Manasseh, the son of Joseph, approach Moses with a most unusual request. "Our father died in the Wilderness ... he had no sons. Why should the name of our father be omitted from among his family because he had no son? Give us a possession among our father's brothers." Moses brought their request to God, and God deemed it fitting and proper that the daughters of Zelophehad be granted their share in the land.
Many questions come to mind. Why were the daughters of Zelophehad so zealous about ownership of the land? Would it not have sufficed for them to have simply lived in the Holy Land? And why was it necessary for the Torah to trace their lineage back to Joseph?
The answers to both questions are one and the same. If you truly love, you will not be satisfied being passive about the object of your love; you will want to protect it, guard it, work for it, and if necessary, sacrifice for it. The daughters of Zelophehad, because they loved the Land of Israel, wanted to possess and cultivate it. They weren't content to be mere bystanders. From where did this fire in their hearts emanate? From their ancestor Joseph, whose love for the holy land was legendary. During his exile in Egypt, he never for a moment forgot his roots. Despite the fact that the Egyptians held Jews and their land in contempt, he never denied his origins. Whether in bondage, in prison, or in the palace, the Land of Israel remained uppermost in his heart and mind. Even on his deathbed, Joseph spoke of the Land and made his brethren swear that when the Exodus took place, they would not forget him but take his remains with them and bury him in the Holy Land.
1. Num. 25:6.
2. Ibid. 25:7.
3. Ibid. 25:13.
4. Ibid. 26:41, 43.
5. Ibid. 27:1-4.