Who Should We Emulate: The Passion of Pinchas or the Passion of the Daughters of Zelophchad

Summary of My Talk on Shabbat July 15

Our Torah reading this morning presents us with 2 opposing views on how we should express our passion for Jewish law and our dedication to God. We are reminded at the beginning of the portion of the violent act of zealotry that Pinchas the kohen/priest (Moses' grand nephew and the grandson of Aaron) committed in God's name. The Israelites - at the end of last week's portion - had been tempted by the Midianites to participate in their highly sexual fertility cult. Pinchas, in a fit of rage, grabbed a spear and rammed it through the bodies of an Israelite man and a Midianite woman. For this act, Pinchas is rewarded with an eternal covenant of peace. It seems from just reading the text of the Torah itself that we are supposed to learn that Pinchas' spontaneous act in defense of God and tradition was noble and just. That even we are supposed to learn that if we are faced with such communal acts of immorality and apostasy that we too should act like Pinchas.

Yet, later in this week's portion, we meet the daughters of Zelophchad. Moses had just informed the people of their future land holdings in the land of Israel. Those portions which would be distributed to each tribe and to each family within each tribe, would be passed down from father to son. Zelophchad had died in the desert and left "only" 5 daughters and no son. The daughters, who wanted very much to settle in the land of Israel and to carry on their father's name, approached Moses and requested their father's portion. Moses was dumbfounded and asked God what he should do. God responded that the daughters were right and that in the future if there would be no male heir, then a daughter may inherit.

The model of protest exhibited by the daughters of Zelophcad is antithetical to Pinchas' model. Had the daughters followed his example they may have, upon settling the land, picked a land portion and refused to leave. Or they may have responded by raising a revolt. Instead they protested within the system of law and through proper channels and as a result God saw their just cause and responded in their favor.

So the question is - which model of protest/zeal/advocacy are we to emulate? Should we be vigilantes like Pinchas or should we work through the system like the daughters of Zelophchad? An answer can be found in how the rabbis themselves interpreted the text. The rabbis determined how the weekly portions would be divided. If they wanted us to be like Pinchas they would have made sure that the act of violence and the subsequent reward would be in the same portion and they may have also made sure that the episode of the daughters of Zelophchad would be in a different portion. According to a medieval rabbi (Moses of Coucy), by dividing Pinchas' act from the reward - essentially making us wait one week from one portion to the next - the rabbis are teaching us that we are supposed to respond thoughtfully and patiently rather than quickly and rashly. 

As we confront issues of social inequity and injustice in our society we are faced with the same dilemma. We may be tempted to act like Pinchas and eradicate the wrong as quickly and efficiently as possible. Yet, as the rabbis teach us, the more lasting and effective impact to righting a wrong is best done with love, patience and compassion. If we can emulate the daughters of Zelophchad then even God will be on our side.