The Torah’s Many Voices

When I was in middle school (maybe high school, I really don’t remember), I learned in either Tanach class or Rabbinics (yes, I went to Jewish Day School) the following verse from Exodus: “If a person shall dig open a pit, or dig a pit and leave it uncovered, and an ox or an ass falls therein, the person shall be liable.” It blew my mind that the Torah–which previously I had thought of as just stories–has something so mundane. That started a lifelong fascination with the diverse nature of the Torah.

Parashat Pinchas — Numbers 25:10 – 30:1 (the reading from the Hebrew Bible read in synagogue this past year on July 3)  is a great example of this.

The parasha opens with Pinchas being held up as an example of the righteousness of God. At the end of last week’s reading he murdered an Israelite engaged in prohibited cohabitation with a non-Israelite. His violent act, done with religious zeal was such that all of the people were spared God’s wrath–they were miraculously freed from the throes of a plague. And to top it off, Pinchas got a personal reward from God for this. 

This reference was actually in the news this week: a Knesset member in Israel, quoting the parasha, literally called for the murder of “people who contribute to miscegenation”.

If you ask me, this is a concrete example of how not to use the Torah. This is the God of Sodom and Gomorrah, the God that Abraham believed wanted a human sacrifice, the God that Moses convinced, just barely, not to give up on the Israelites. 

The violence, and the justification for it we find in the Torah is the hardest to reconcile with modern sensibilities and frankly, morality in general. I’m not alone in this, and in many ways, this is the God that makes me doubt, makes me think, and question, and truly examine the words of Torah. For me, the questioning and the doubt have deep spiritual power and lie at the roots of the strength of Judaism. It is sickening that in this day and age there are those that still advocate this type of violence. But, the parasha has barely begun, and there is more to the Torah….

Without pause we move on to another census, the Israelites are creating the army that will conquer Canaan, and they are going to apportion shares and land according to the relative size of the tribes. This is the Torah of administration. Of setting up circuit courts, of setting out taxes and tithes, and detailing the layout of the Israelites’ camps. This is the God of Joseph and rationing, and practicality. It is holy to organize society. Chaos and anarchy are not Jewish values.

In the middle of the tally of the census we learn about the daughters of Zelophehad. He died in the wilderness and left no sons to be counted in the census, which would leave the daughters landless and penniless. His daughters petitioned Moses to not make them paupers and homeless in the land of Canaan, and Moses, as directed by God, gave the women the right to inherit. Radical for its time (and frankly in Western history through much of the 20th C.) This is the God of the eminently practical and balanced legal code. The one that makes sure that society understands the basic principles of legal practice, and legal justice: the costs of negligence (oxen falling into pits), of rights and duties of ownership, the laws of inheritance. If the census god is practical, this God is just. The justice of living within a society — gaining privileges, claiming rights and having duties. Just think, holding McDonalds to account for scalding coffee is a holy act.

The parasha continues, tucked in after this — almost as an afterthought — is the announcement of the death of Moses and the appointment of Joshua to lead the Israelites after Moses. This is the Torah that consistently diminishes individuals and elevates God. This is the God that emphasizes that the humans who lead, teach and adjudicate are extensions of God’s will–their own contributions, while relevant, pale in comparison. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron — their lives were full and recorded and worth considering, but ultimately their achievements, according to the Torah, are God’s. From a humanist perspective, this is untenable, but from a Jewish point of view, it is part of the iconoclastic nature of our religion. Not only do we not worship idols, we do not elevate humans to a superhuman level. Kind of a built in barrier to megalomania. 

But wait, we’re not done with the parasha yet. It ends in describing the minute details of worship rituals. We read about the purpose and sacrifices of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot. This is the Torah of the temple, and of the Priestly hierarchy. This is the Torah of how to worship as a Jew. (or at least back then). On the face of it, this seems least applicable to our lives, but maybe not. 

Ritual brings together the practicality, the justice, the iconoclasm, and in some measure, the acknowledgement of God’s anger and vengeance–as the sacrifices may work to ameliorate God’s wrath. It is ritual and tradition that both endure through the ages, but also evolve and adjust to stay relevant with the passage of time. This is the living Torah.

One parasha, and the opportunity to study all the facets of God and the Torah. Enjoy the nuances, tackle the tough questions, engage in the rituals meaningful to you.



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