D’var Torah:  Getting Your Just Deserts

Jason Lever, Conservative Yeshiva Student, Winter-Spring 2018

One who wishes to see each parasha as a coherent whole will find Parashat Pinchas particularly challenging. Its disparate threads include the end of the Pinchas story, a census, an episode where we learn that daughters can inherit their father’s property in the absence of a male heir, the ordination of Yehoshua as Moshe’s’ successor, and a detailed list of the daily, Shabbat, and holiday sacrifices.

For me, it is the idea of ‘just deserts’ that holds the entire parasha together – the idea that sooner or later, good or bad, everyone gets what they deserve. This starts with God rewarding Pinchas, son of Elazar and grandson of Aaron, for exacting “atonement for the children of Israel” (Bamidbar 26:13) by slaying a Midianite woman, Cozbi, along Zimri, “a prince of a father’s house,” from the tribe of Simeon, as we read in Parashat Balak last week. This stayed the plague that broke out when the Israelites fell into harlotry with the Moabite and Midianitish women, and joined them in worship of their God, Ba’al Peor. This merited Pinchas “the covenant of an everlasting priesthood” (26:13) and the parasha is named after him for this most holy of tasks. And for their attempt to harm Bnei Yisrael, God commands Moses to: “harass the Midianites, and smite them” (26: 17) to ensure they get their ‘just deserts’.

In order to assess the plague’s cost and prepare to enter/conquer the Land, Moshe ordered another census, nearly forty years after the first one, done just after leaving Egypt and before the building of the Mishkan (Shemot 30:11-16). Leaving out the Levites, who had special Mishkan-related duties and would not be allotted land, the people numbered 601,730 men aged over 20. Seeing how only the men “counted” for apportioning the Land, the daughters of Tzelafchad approached Moses and stated that their father had died leaving behind only daughters and requested to receive their father’s portion in the land of Israel. God accepts this entitlement, saying “if a man die and have no son, then ye shall cause his inheritance to pass unto his daughter” (27:8). Thus Tzelafchad’s daughters made sure that as long as they married within the tribe, their father and his descendants would get what they deserved.

But was it ‘just deserts’ for Moshe to have to ordain a successor to lead the people into the Land? Of the entire generation to leave Egypt, is it fair that Yehoshua escapes God’s punishment that Bnei Yisrael “shall surely die in the wilderness” (26:65) when Moshe does not? Both Moshe and Yehoshua have impressive records of service – Moshe to God, and Yehoshua to Moshe. But in the episode with the spies, Yehoshua particularly distinguishes himself when he and Calev maintain faith in both God and the people that they would succeed in conquering the Land.

Moshe’s faith at this point seems less certain. In last week’s parasha, Balak, it is inaction by Moshe in the face of the plague and Zimri’s brazen behavior that necessitated Pichas’ act of zealotry. And of course there is the story from two weeks ago in Parashat Hukkat when Moshe angrily struck the rock to bring forth water. Some commentators even see in Moshe’s decision to send spies to scout the Land some latent doubt, either in the Land, the People, or in God! What seems clear is that by this point in our narrative, Moshe’s capacity for faithful, patient, and decisive leadership has already begun to erode.

Looking at Moshe as an individual, it seems patently unfair that he only gets the tantalising consolation of seeing the Land from the top of Mount Nebo before he dies. Surely after his many contributions and acts of self-sacrifice, he deserved to enter the Land? But the Torah’s deeper message may be that the calculus of what is fair or not is different for leaders. The question is not whether an individual deserves to be the leader, it is whether this is the leader the people deserves. And the new generation that maintained their patience and faith even without witnessing the great miracles their parents had seen, deserved a leader who, even without speaking with God face-to-face as Moshe did, would maintain his patience and faith, and be able to represent the new generation’s needs going forwards.

For Discussion: Looking at society today, and our leaders, can we say that we have the kind of leaders we deserve?