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‘There is an electric fire in human nature tending to purify – so that among these human creatures there is continually some birth of new heroism. The pity is that we must wonder at it, as we should at finding a pearl in rubbish’.
— John Keats
‘Living by faith includes the call to something greater than cowardly self-preservation’.
— J.R.R. Tolkien
This week begins a series of 10 haftarot that are read in relation to the time of year rather than the parasha directly. Three are read during the three weeks between the fast of 17th Tamuz and the fast of 9th Ab. They speak of hardship and ill. Seven are read from after the 9th of Ab until Rosh HaShana. They speak of consolation and repentance.
The haftara for Pinehas is comprised of the opening of the book of Yirmiyah. He is commissioned to speak God’s word to the people. Yirmiyah contends that he is unfit and that he is too young for the job. God assures him that his age will not hinder his success and that although people may try to fight him, God will protect him and accompany him on his mission to ‘nations and kingdoms’. He is again assured: ‘They will attack you, but they shall not overcome you; For I am with you — declares the Lord — to save you’.
Parashat Pinehas speaks to us of heroes. While Pinehas himself may not be a textbook example of one, he stands with the other heroes of the Bible in God’s favour. His tactics were highly contentious (Sanhedrin, 82b), but Pinehas joins the rank because he upheld morality and pulled his nation back from the brink of dissolution.
The Hakhamim have cautioned us from using Pinehas as a case study for heroism, lest we get the wrong idea and espouse vigilantism. But courage has many colours, and there is a considerable variety in our readings this week. There is a more peaceful and relatable case that finds its rightful place in our parasha. The five daughters of Selofhad took a courageous stand for women’s rights and appealed to Moshe and the nation’s leaders. They contended that the law excluding women from inheritance should be changed, and their deceased father’s portion of the land of Israel should be bequeathed to them rather than to their uncles. God ruled in their favour and promptly revised the Torah’s laws of inheritance.
The theme of heroism carries over to the haftarot of perashat Pinehas as well. Depending on when Pinehas is read (before or after 17 Tamuz), we read either of the zeal of Eliyahu haNavi from the book of Melakhim (18:46-19:21) or, as we do this year, of the courage of Yirmiyah (1:1-2:3). In both stories, the protagonists stepped into danger and uncertainty in order to fight for truth and assert proper values.
Both haftarot have a peculiar detail in common, Eliyahu and Yirmiyah must gird their loins to get the job done:
[Eliyahu] girded his loins and ran in front of Ahab all the way to Yizre’el (18:46)
So you (Yirmiyah), gird your loins, arise and speak to them all that I command you. (1:17)
This may seem like a minor detail, but it points to a key element of the entire theme. In ancient times, when the usual garb was a long robe, girding one’s loins meant that they lifted and tied their robes up by their hips when doing strenuous or physical work, to prevent their clothes from getting in the way. This is a term that both literally and figuratively indicates that one was preparing for a trial or difficult act. In Eliyahu’s case, it tells of how he dealt with a corrupt regime, a people who had lost their faithfulness to God and an evil king and queen of Israel, Ahab and Jezebel. Eliyahu recognised that the people’s salvation was in the king’s hands, and he didn’t want to allow him to simply ride off and disregard his responsibility. As the king was departing in his chariot to return home after a particularly intense interlude with Eliyahu, Eliyahu girded his loins and ran ahead of the king’s chariot all the way to Yizre’el, to meet him and implore him to change his ways. Although he was not met with a warm welcome and had ultimately to flee for his life, Eliyahu was not one to shy away from a chance to assert justice and fight for his values. For this reason the Hakhamim see him as identical to Pinehas: “Pinehas is Eliyahu”. (Yalkut Shimoni, Torah, 771).
In Yirmiyah’s case, he is charged by God to be the voice of morality to the already degenerate nation:
See, I appoint you this day over nations and kingdoms: to uproot and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant. (1:10)
It is a heavy task, and Yirmiyah is young, but God tells him to gird his loins and exert himself far beyond his comfort zone.
They will fight you but they will not succeed for I am with you. (1:19)
Practically everything we read this week speaks of assertive and even iconoclastic behaviour. The question is: what are we meant to take from all of it? These stories prompt us to consider whether there is something important enough in our lives that would move us to stand against adversity and fight for what is right. Even in the very contemplation of such thoughts, we sense the sacrifice, bravery, and conviction that it would take to do so. It is easy to think that we are not as poised as these men and women were to make a difference on the levels that they did. For most of us, things like changing law, putting down rebellion, challenging kings and rectifying society are beyond our purview. But even we have moments when we must gird our loins and speak bravely before the ‘kings’ of the day.
Life is varied and it requires people of all kinds to stand up, speak, and act. It need not be a law that we change, or a society that we transform, but there is one ubiquitous reality that humanity faces: the world requires human action in order for it to be at its best. To do that, requires stepping out of one’s comforts. It requires us to roll up our sleeves (a modern equivalent to girding loins) and get our hands dirty. What Pinehas, the daughters of Selofhad, Eliyahu and Yirmiyah all had in common is that they stepped out boldly of their comfortable spaces and into adversity, in order to affect change for the better.
For us, it may not be lofty laws that we affect, but the unwritten laws of our family dynamics that need attention. It may not be a king whom we confront but our parents, teachers or children. Perhaps it isn’t a nation that we must reform, but a friend who needs help and encouragement.
In each of us smoulders a drive that can be fanned to burn bright and better the world, rather than succumb to the shadowed state that we inherit. It is this drive that the parasha and haftara aim to ignite in us.
Creation is by no means perfect – it wasn’t meant to be. Parashat Pinehas reminds us all that we are more than just spectators in life. The world’s deficiencies and iniquities call upon us to act, and set them right when it is in our hands to do so. It is for this reason that God personally vindicates both Pinehas and Selofhad’s daughters. It is the reason why He personally feeds Eliyahu (I Melakhim, 19:5-6) and pledges full security for Yirmiyah (Yirmiyah, 1:19). He does the same for those who step out to fight for revealing more of His light in His world. They all stepped up to heal and build the world and thus earned Divine protection from its primal, violent struggles for survival.
Life touches us all in deep and meaningful ways. We have the freedom to be passive in its flow or to step into it and lend our unique hand to where it can be improved. That, in the end, is our covenant with God. We are partners with Him in this world and in the development
Rabbi Joseph Dweck
74 Pinchas’s reward: God’s covenant of peace;
Zimri (Shimonite) and Cozbi (Midianite) named
and shamed (25:10-15)
75 God commands war with the Midianites because of
what has happened (25:16-18).
And after the plague… (26:1)
76a Moshe and Elazar commanded to take (2nd) census
(men: 20 up) of People on plains of Moav (26:1-11)
Reuven 43730 (26:5-11) [down 6.0% on last census]
76b Shimon 22200 (26:12-14) [down 62.6%]
76c Gad 40500 (26:15-18) [down 11.3%]
76d Yehuda 76500 (26:19-22) [up 2.5%]
76e Yisakhar 64300 (26:23-25) [up 18.2%]
76f Zevulun 60500 (26:26-27) [up 5.4%]
76g Menashe 52700 (26:28-34) [up 63.7%]
76h Ephraim 32500 (26:35-37) [down 19.8%]
76i Binyamin 45600 (26:38-41) [up 28.8%]
76j Dan 64400 (26:42-43) [up 2.7%]
76k Asher 53400 (26:44-47) [up 28.7%]
76l Naftali 45400 (26:48-51) [down 15.0%].
Sum total: 601730 (26:51) [down 0.3%]
77a Division of the Land based on census (26:52-56)
77b Census (males one month up) of the Levi’im:
23000 (26:57-65) [up 4.5%]
77c Daughters of Zelafchad―Machla, Noa, Hogla,
Milca and Tirza―claim their inheritance (27:1-5)
78 God asserts their right and elaborates on laws of
land inheritance (27:6-11)
79a Moshe is shown the Land he will never enter
79b Yehoshua is appointed as the leader to succeed
80 Tamid, regular daily offerings in the Mishkan:
morning and evening (28:1-8)
81 Additional Shabbat offerings (28:9-10)
82a Additional Rosh Chodesh offerings (28:11-15)
82b Pesach and its additional offerings (28:16-25)
82c Yom HaBikurim (Shavuot) and its additional
83a Yom Teruah (Rosh Hashanah) and its additional
83b Asor l’Chodesh haShevi’i (Yom Kippur) and its
additional offerings (29:7-11)
83c Chag (Sukkot) and its additional offerings for the
1st day (29:12-16)
83d 2nd day Sukkot additional offerings (29:17-19)
83e 3rd day Sukkot additional offerings (29:20-22)
83f 4th day Sukkot additional offerings (29:23-25)
83g 5th day Sukkot additional offerings (29:26-28)
83h 6th day Sukkot additional offerings (29:29-31)
83i 7th day Sukkot additional offerings (29:32-34)
83j 8th day Atzeret (Shemini Atzeret) additional
Taken from, ‘Torah for Everyone’ by Rabbi Dr Raphael Zarum, Dean of LSJS