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  • Writer's pictureSamuel Lebens

Pinchas: Additional Torah

At the end of last week's reading, the Jewish people finally found their way to the border of Israel. The forty years are over. Moses is about to die.

The beginning of this week's reading deals with the final census in the book of Numbers. Now that the forty years have passed, we have the perfect opportunity to count the number of Israelites who will be privileged to enter the land.

The next scene concerns the daughters of Zelophehad. The nation is about to enter and take possession of the land. Each clan will receive a portion, to remain within the family. These lands can never be sold, but only leased for up to fifty years. The daughters of Zelophehad, cognizant of the inequalities that operate in a patriarchy, want to know, at this moment in time, how and when the land will be inherited by daughters who (like them) have no brother.

The next stage in the narrative presents Moses asking God to appoint for him a successor. Moses knows that he's about to die. He wants the peace of mind that will come with seeing a new leader in place "to go out before them and to come in before them... so that the LORD’s community may not be like sheep that have no shepherd" (Numbers 27:17). Accordingly, God commands Moses to appoint Joshua as his successor in a public and ceremonial transfer of authority.

The rest of the reading is dedicated to sacrifices. God commands Moses to lay out the communal sacrifices that are to be brought each day in the Tabernacle, and later in the Temple.


According to Nachmanides, the daily weekday sacrifices had already been commanded in the book of Exodus. What's new to this week's reading are the additional sacrifices brought on the festivals. According to Rashi, by contrast, the daily sacrifices of the book of Exodus were only part of the prolonged dedication of the Tabernacle. They weren't intended for the generations. Accordingly, for Rashi, both the festival sacrifices and the weekday sacrifices, as a permanent fixture of Jewish worship, are totally new.

Either way - whether the innovation here is the daily sacrifices in general, or whether the innovation is only the festival sacrifices - what is this section doing over here, towards the end of the book of Numbers? It simply doesn't belong here. We had a list of the festivals in the book of Leviticus - and since that's the book of priestly law, surely it should have listed the sacrifices to be brought on the holy days over there. But no, the Torah waits until now to give us these instructions that are so crucial to the ceremonial life of the Jewish people. Indeed, the extra prayer service that Jews still observe on sabbaths and festivals (i.e., the Musaf service) derives from these extra sacrifices, which were brought in the Temple on holy days; sacrifices which the Torah seems to add as an after thought, long after it had finished its elaborate description of the Tabernacle and its functions.

We know why there's a census this week; the forty years have come to an end. We know why the daughters of Zelophehad ask their question this week; the people are about to inherit the land. We know why Moses wants to see the appointment of a successor this week; he's about to die. But it's not at all clear what these festival and weekday sacrifices are doing at the end of our reading. That's the question to which our Midrash will turn. It writes:

And God said unto Moses, "command the children of Israel... regarding the offering of my bread [i.e., of my daily sacrifices]." Why is this stated? Because [Moses] said "[let the Lord appoint someone] who will go out before them, and come in before them" [i.e. this portion about the sacrifices was stated because Moses asked for a successor]. A parable. To what can the matter be compared? To a king who had a terminally ill wife, and she charged him over her sons. She said to him, "I beseech you to take care of my children for me." He said to her, "Before you charge me over my children, charge my children over me, that they shouldn't rebel against me, and that they shouldn't act disrespectfully towards me." So too, the holy One, blessed be He, said to [Moses]: "Before you charge me over my children, charge my children over me, that they shouldn't act disrespectfully towards me, and that they shouldn't exchange my honour for foreign gods.

The language of the Midrash is somewhat matter of fact. The dying Queen wants to make sure that her children are going to be looked after, and all the King can say is, "well, while you're still alive, tell them to respect me!" But the conversation doesn't have to be read in that tone. I read it as follows: the Queen is worried for her children, and she wants the King to look after them, but the King is equally fearful that without her, he won't be able to command the authority that a parent needs to have, in order to steer his children in the right direction. He'll do his best without her, but before she dies, he wants her to talk to the children so that her words might help to cement his authority over them.

As we generally tend to do, when faced with a parable in the Midrash, our first task is to chart the ways in which the parable isn't quite analogous to the situation at hand. Note the words of the king, echoed by God, in our Midrash: "before you charge me over my children, charge my children over me." And sure enough, in the parable, we assume that the Queen really will speak to her children, before she passes away, and before the King takes over as a single parent. But in the Torah reading, Moses doesn't command the Jewish people to bring sacrifices each day before his request for a successor is granted. On the contrary, first he gets to appoint his successor (i.e., he gets what he asked for) and only then, after that fact, does he command the Jews to bring daily sacrifices.

What's more, if the Queen stands for Moses, and the King stands for God, then who and where is Joshua? In the parable, the King is going to be left to parent alone. In the Torah, however, Moses has a replacement. God isn't going to be left to rule the people alone, so to speak; he'll have a new prophet to play the role of Moses.

Another jarring detail of the Midrash is its question. It doesn't ask why the portion of the sacrifices is stated at this point in the narrative. It doesn't ask why is it stated here. It asks why is this portion stated at all. The implication is that, had Moses not "charged God," regarding a successor, then this portion wouldn't have appeared. There would have been no daily sacrifices, and there would have been no additional sacrifices to bring on the festivals. There would be no mussaf service in the liturgy of modern Judaism, had Moses not asked for a successor. Really?

Moses is unlike any of his successors. His prophecy, we've been told was of a completely different kind to those who came before and after him. To them, God appears in visions. He gives His prophets images and riddles to decode. But to Moses, God speaks (so to speak) face to face. So acute is this difference that when Maimonides codified his thirteen principles of the Jewish faith, he included one principle to articulate our faith that the words of the prophets are true, and a distinct principle to articulate our faith in the prophecy of Moses. This is because his prophecy was of an entirely different nature.

But Moses wasn't only a prophet. Jewish tradition relates to him also as a Rabbi. But once again, he was unlike any later Rabbi. According to the Jewish tradition, Rabbis have licence to issue decrees. But their decrees have a status that is lower than the status of Biblical law. If a Rabbi were to add a new Biblical law, he would be transgressing the commandment not to add to or to subtract from the Torah.

But Moses is different. If he were to enact something, then it would enter into the Five Books of Moses, and it would become Biblical. As I like to put it, God appropriates the words of Moses, and they become Biblical law. The words of other Rabbis have authority, but God doesn't make their words His own in the same way. Other Rabbis can create Rabbinical law; Moses, with the endorsement of God, can create Biblical law. In that respect, Joshua is no replacement for Moses. This is the first key with which to unlock our Midrash. The King in our parable really does have only one Queen; a Queen who cannot and will not be replaced.

The next thing to notice is how the Queen, the King, and God, in the Midrash all describe the children as belonging to them alone. The Queen charges the King regarding her children. The King charges the Queen regarding his children. Context makes it clear that these children are the offspring of both the King and the Queen and yet they both claim a special sort of ownership over them. God too, in the Midrash, tells Moses to charge "my children over me." With this in mind, it becomes clear that, when his wife has gone, and the King watches over the children, he will be expressing the love that his Queen had for them - he will be watching over her children. Likewise, when the Queen talks to the children, and asks them to listen to their father, she will be expressing the love of the King for his children.

Only after Moses dies, and Joshua moves from being leader-elect to being the leader in office, will the continued presence of Joshua function as an expression of Moses's love for the people. It was Moses who asked for a successor. It was Moses who handed his power on to Joshua. And when Moses is dead, in leading the people through the prophecy of Joshua, God will be expressing the love that Moses had for children of Israel. The King will be watching over the children of the Queen.

Likewise, only before Moses dies can a new Biblical law be added to the Torah. After the death of Moses, the only new laws will be Rabbinic. Only before Moses dies, can Moses say something new that will express the love that God has for us.

It's not hard to imagine that the love that the Queen has for her children moves the King. And it isn't hard to imagine that the King's love for his children moves the Queen. It isn't hard to imagine that in the midst of this conversation both their love for each other, and for the children that they share, is magnified.

So yes, God's love for the children of Israel is magnified by the concern that Moses shows for them just before his death. And this magnified love that God has for us is expressed in Moses' command to bring daily sacrifices; just as the King's love for his children is expressed by the Queen asking them to pay heed to their father when she's gone.

This reading of the Midrash is consonant with the Rabbinic idea that God expresses his love for the Jewish people by multiplying commandments. Indeed, a well known Mishna states:

Rabbi Hananiah ben Akashia says: “The Holy Blessed One, desired to benefit Israel, therefore He gave them much Torah [to study] and many commandments [to perform]: for it is says, “The Lord desires [his servant’s] vindication, that he may magnify and glorify [His] teaching [literally: make the Torah bigger]” (Isaiah 42).

In his comments on this Mishna, Maimonides seems to worry. How does it merit the Jews to give them more commandments? Surely, the more commandments we have, the harder our life, the more mistakes we're liable to make, and the greater the burden of our Jewish identity. How was God doing us a favour by giving us more commandments? He writes:

It is among the fundamental principles of the Torah that when an individual fulfills one of the 613 commandments in a fit and proper manner, not combining with it any aspect of worldly intent but rather doing it for its own sake, out of love, then they merit the World to Come through this single act. This is what Rabbi Hananiah meant - being that the Holy One gave us so many commandments it is impossible that in a lifetime one not do a single one in a full and proper manner, and in doing so their soul will live through that act.

Some people flourish in one area of life, and others flourish other areas of life. We all have different talents and sensibilities. Consequently, the more commandments there are, each one requiring its own talents and sensibilities, the more likely we are to get at least one of them right.

We didn't have to have the mussaf service on festivals and the sabbath. We didn't have to have daily sacrifices or daily prayers. But God was so moved by the love that Moses had for us, that his own love was magnified. This love, according to our Midrash, is manifest in these commandments at the end of this week's reading. These sacrifice are commanded at this point in the narrative because it was only at this point in the narrative that God's love for the Children of Israel was moved, by the love that Moses had for them. That newly magnified Divine love was expressed in the words of Moses, as he commanded us in the rituals of daily worship; a daily opportunity for us to show our love to God.

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