This week Jews study the portion of the Bible called Pinhas, Numbers 25:10–30:1. This section concludes the scandalous episode of the sexual attack by Moavite and Midianite women against the Jews. This took place at the end of last week’s Bible study:
The Moavites and Midianites sent their best endowed women, including girls from the nobility, decked out like whores to seduce the Jews. The Medrashim (backstories to the Bible passed down from the men who were there) and the Talmud explain that they set up trading posts and offered the Jews merchandise on sale, with an older woman outside a tent offering a higher price, and a younger woman inside the tent offering a lower price. Jews do not pay retail, so they went inside to strike a deal and met a gorgeous woman dressed to kill and ready to please. The Talmud details that they wore golden lingerie to emphasize their bodily assets. In those days, a woman in any sort of revealing clothing was out of the ordinary, so to make the outfits from gold further added to the allure.
As thousands of Jewish men got seduced, the Midianite women also convinced them to engage in idolatry (25:1-3). God tells Moses to take the judges and sentence these men to death and execute them (25:4-5). In response one of the princes of a Jewish tribe brought a Midianite princess back to the camp, and brought her before Moses, a public outrage (25:6). He intended not only to engage in promiscuity with her, but to do this in front of the whole camp, giving an official imprimatur to this harlotry. The Jewish leadership was paralyzed from the outrage. Only one man, Pinhas (also spelled Phinehas) took action against the prince. He was a grandson of Aaron the high priest.
Pinhas spears the Jewish man and the harlot through their reproductive organs, and carried them outside on his spear. The camp witnessed his zealous vengeance on the prince and stopped pursuing the foreign women. Unfortunately, 24,000 Jewish men perished in this debacle.
This week our portion opens: Pinhas the son of Eleazar the son of Aaron the priest has turned My anger away from the children of Israel by his zealously avenging Me among them, so that I did not destroy the children of Israel because of My zeal. Therefore, say, “I hereby give him My covenant of peace. It shall be for him and for his descendants after him an eternal covenant of priesthood, because he was zealous for his God and atoned for the children of Israel.” 25:10-13. You may find it mind boggling that an act of violence earns a covenant of peace and priesthood. All the contrary, sometimes a shocking act against a corrupt status quo is just what is needed to restore balance and peace. This week also names the Jewish man as Zimri, Prince of Simon, and the woman as Cozbi daughter of Tzur, a royal princess of Midian. This highlights the fact that the harlotry involved the highest levels of both nations.
Let us elaborate on what exactly Pinhas accomplished with his zeal and spear. First, the women of Moav and Midian began to seduce Jewish men and get them to engage in idolatry (25:1-3). God tells Moses to take the judges and sentence these men to death and execute them (25:4-5). The Jews begin judging the sinners. Men from the tribe of Simon complain to their prince that they were being sentenced to death and ask for protection. The prince responds by bringing a Midianite princess in front of Moses and the entire camp (25:6). Our sages teach that he was making a legal argument against Moses: if you Moses were allowed to marry a Midianite woman, then why can’t we now? (Sanhedrin 82). Moses married before the Divine revelation at Sinai and the giving of the Torah, and obviously Moses had converted her to Judaism. However, the gall of this prince, chutzpah as we say in Yiddish, shocked the Jews and they were not able to respond. Perhaps the leadership was trying to argue against the prince that these women could not be converted since they were steeped in idolatry and corrupting the men. Zimri took the girl to his royal tent to seal the deal. Only Pinhas had the peace of mind to remember that there is a law that if a Jew cohabits with an Aramean (idolatrous) woman, zealots can strike him down. However, this zealotry is extra-judicial and the sinning man is allowed to defend himself with deadly force.
Pinhas put himself into danger, but employed wisdom and received Divine assistance. Our ancient sources explain that Pinhas hid the tip of his spear in his clothing and approached the prince’s guarded tent with just his walking stick, which was really his spear shaft. He asked for a turn with the Midianite girl, and the guards let him in, thinking it would be even better for their position to have a man related to the high priest ratify their harlotry. Once inside, Pinhas rebuilt his spear and stabbed Zimri and Cozbi through their reproductive organs, and carried them outside on his spear. This proved to the Jews that the zealous killing was legal as Zimri was actually sinning at the time. The camp witnessed his vengeance on the prince and stopped pursuing the foreign women. The guards from the tribe Simon were so shocked at the assassination of their leader that Pinhas was able to escape.
It is hard to translate the term to English, commonly we see it as zeal and zealot. The same letters also connote jealousy. Pinhas acted out of jealousy in a certain sense, but not his own jealousy of Zimri. It wasn’t anything personal to Pinhas, he had no grudge against Zimri. It was outrage that Jewish men would go after foreign women and their idols, and a prince would endorse and protect that behavior. Pinhas was acting out of God’s jealousy. Understand, God does not have human emotions. God never actually gets jealous, the Bible uses such terminology so humans can understand the message and draw lessons on proper behavior. Pinhas understood that the rampant promiscuity was an affront to God, and to the honor of the Jewish people. He was jealously avenging the honor of others, not himself.
Pinhas was concerned with fulfilling God’s mission in this physical world, which requires the Jewish people to maintain their personal purity. He identified himself as an agent for God’s objectives, and made His goal into a personal mission. This allows a high level of leadership. When a leader takes things personally, holds himself as more important than the mission, then he cannot be fully devoted to the mission. Others can drive a wedge between him and his goals by attacking him personally. He pays close attention to public opinion of his performance, instead of his actual job.
When you put your mission over your own pride, you can become more effective, because your actions are not about you. You have a greater cause in life, something you can be zealous and jealous for. Something you can put first, above other people and your own laziness. You don’t have to make excuses, since your mission demands certain actions, not yourself. Again, it’s not your ego that drives you, but your mission. When someone gets in your way, you don’t take it personally, you work on removing the impediments to your mission. Nothing personal.
How low can we go?
When the Midianite women seduced a Jewish man, they would ask him to join her in idol worship. The idol that the Midianite women brought to the Jews was the infamous Baal Peor, the lord of excrement (25:3). This idol was worshipped by defecating in front of it; the offering was the man’s excrement. The most pious Baal Peor fanatics would use an idol to wipe. This sounds incredible. How could the holy Jews, the living banner of monotheism, be lured after the most vile idol?
When people reject holiness, they don’t just go to neutral, they go to the opposite extreme. We also see another element of human psychology at play here: When men think they are fallen they throw themselves deeper into the pit. The Jewish men who were seduced by the Midianite girls felt that since they were giving in to their urges by sinning, they might as well give in to join them in idolatry too. After all, they were already sinners in their own eyes.
This self concept is actually against ancient Jewish wisdom. Our sages teach that however low a man falls, he can stop and turn his life around. A man can change his life in a moment of repentance and strong resolve to change. Our sages bring stories of men steeped in hedonism and harlotry who turned their lives around in an instant of resisting temptation, even though they had given in to that temptation before. This is a powerful idea that you can use. No matter where you are in life now, you can change it.
However, when many men are sinning together, it becomes harder to stop and turn around. There can be positive peer pressure and God forbid negative too. Pinhas was not affected by the other men straying. His zeal was stronger than peer pressure, he saw this debauchery and was outraged at the affront to God’s honor. God sent a plague to kill out the men who had sinned with foreign women and idols. The Bible makes clear that it was a minority of Jews engaging in harlotry, since a 24,000 died from this encounter, out of over 600,000 men aged 20 through 60. But for that many holy men to give in to a sexual attack and lower themselves from their spiritual was shocking. Keep in mind this likely includes men who had seen miracles and God’s revelation at Sinai.
Pinhas realized this was an extreme change in the sexual-spiritual level of the Jewish men and took direct action. When mores change slowly most people don’t notice. When things get really bad quickly, people start to realize something is wrong. In mainstream society, the level of promiscuity and licentiousness has definitely been increasing. For some it probably seems like a slow inevitable march. When I was a kid, it was practically unheard of for a woman to have a tattoo. In college, it was still rare and a girl with a ink was considered trashy by most people. Now, if you are around young secular people, you will see women with multiple tats, wearing clothing to show them off. The stigma has largely evaporated. In fact, there is a race to the bottom: if one girl has one tat, eventually that becomes normal and boring, so the next girl wants two tats plus a body piercing and more revealing clothing so she can get more attention. There is such a pull to the extreme, to be more novel, more excited, more noticed by men, that soon what was outrageous seems pretty tame and normal.
When changes are moving slowly they get brushed off. In modern America, changes to popular morality are purposefully introduced slowly, like slowly raising the heat to boil a lobster alive. If you are old enough you remember that there was a time when there was zero mention of homosexuals in the media. The media, by design, slowly added references and characters until it became normal and expected to have them on most mainstream programs.
It takes a massive dose of debauchery to shock this generation, at least in secular circles. And it’s hard to find such things today since we are being desensitized to it. Some of us religious fanatics still get worked up if a girl’s skirt it too short for her school uniform and her knee is showing. In mainstream culture I have to wonder if there is still the capacity for real outrage. Compounding this is backlash to any expressions of outrage. If religious people refuse to decorate a cake for a certain “wedding”, they can be dragged through the mud and lose their business and reputation. It’s actually dangerous for religious people to express traditional religious ideas in public.
After the debacle of the girls from Moav and Midian sexually attacking the Jews, the Bible lists the families of the Jewish tribes, tracing the lineage back to the sons of Jacob (Numbers Chapter 26). Rashi (26:5) explains why this list is here: Since the nations were denigrating them and saying, “How can the Jews trace their lineage by their tribes? Do they think that the Egyptians did not exploit their mothers? If they mastered their bodies as slaves, all the more so [did they exercise authority over] their wives. Therefore, the Holy One, blessed is he, appended His Name to them, the [letter] ‘hey’ to one side and the ‘yud’ to the other side, as if to say: I bear witness for them, that these are the sons of their fathers.
The names of the tribes, in the grammatical form in Numbers 26 add a letter Yod to the end and a letter Heh to the beginning. These letters form a name of God. [The Torah is always referring to the same God even using different names. Human kings can also be called royal highness or exalted or majesty. The various appellation for God convey specific hidden meanings as well]. This was the ancient equivalent of a paternity test, with God himself testifying that the sons were from the fathers.
Conventional Judaism is very tribal. Jews have been known as “the tribe”, though in fact they are 12 tribes from the 12 sons of Jacob. In modern times, most Jews do not know with certainty their ancestral tribe, except the Leviim and Cohanim (priests), who are from the tribe of Levi. So most men named Cohen or Katz (and a few other Cohanic names) descend from our ancient priests. In fact, genetic testing of Cohanim has shown from common Y chromosome haplotypes that the overwhelming majority of present day Cohanim descend from a single man who lived 106 generations ago, about 3300 years ago. This was Aaron, brother of Moses, the first Cohen.
“For more than 90 percent of the Cohens to share the same genetic markers after such a period of time is a testament to the devotion of the wives of the Cohens over the years. Even a low rate of infidelity would have dramatically lowered the percentage.”
Dr. David Goldstein of Oxford University, Science News, October 3, 1998
Further testing on Jews generally, not just Cohanim, revealed similar results. Similarity testing was done on both Y-chromosome, passed from father to son, and mitochondrial DNA, which is passed to any child from mother (the mitochondria come with the egg cell). The results indicate a low level of admixture (intermarriage, conversion, rape, etc.) into the gene pool of various Jewish communities around the globe.
“Despite their long-term residence in different countries and isolation from one another, most Jewish populations were not significantly different from one another at the genetic level. The results support the hypothesis that the paternal gene pools of Jewish communities from Europe, North Africa and the Middle East descended from a common Middle Eastern ancestral population, and suggest that most Jewish communities have remained relatively isolated from neighboring non-Jewish communities during and after the Diaspora.”
(M.F. Hammer, Proc. Nat’l Academy of Science, May 9, 2000)
Of course there should be some degree of admixture, Jews do accept converts (slowly and carefully), though Jews do not encourage others to convert. And of course, through history there have been instances of, heaven forbid, rape and seduction. In Jewish law a child follows the status of the mother for religion, so the child of a Jewish mother is Jewish. However, tribal status goes after the father, and tribe determined inheritance and priesthood, so paternity was also just as important.
The assumption that other nations made was that when one people subjugates another, the women from the weaker group are up for grabs. Now, witnessing 24,000 Jewish men go after foreign women, the other nations assumed that the Jewish women also had engaged in extracurricular activities back in Egypt, when powerful Egyptian men would appear more attractive than enslaved Jews. We learned in Exodus that this was not the case by the Jews in Egypt, and further discussed the sexual loyalty of our ancient women. As we will explore, Jewish women took their job as caretaker of their family seriously.
Daughters no sons
The daughters of Tzelafhad approached Moses to ask for their father’s inheritance in the holy land (Numbers 27). The Bible had instructed that the land would be divided among the men. However, Tzelafhad had died during the 40 years in the wilderness without leaving any sons. His family – the five girls – would be without an inheritance. God instructs Moses that in the absence of sons a man’s inheritance goes to his daughters 27:7. [It goes without saying that if a man leaves sons and daughters, the sons provide for the girls from his estate until they get married].
This is really interesting. You see, 3300 years ago it was extremely rare for a woman to own land. From Greek and Roman records it was almost totally unheard of. In many ancient cultures it was outright illegal, only men could own property. In Jewish culture, it was not illegal for a woman to own land, but it was uncommon, and we will see why.
It would have been easy for the daughters of Tzelafhad to marry men and get the fruits of the land through their husbands. They would be attached to the holy land through their husbands. That was totally normal and expected. In addition, the ancient sources say that these women were all righteous and would be considered a good pick even without owning their own land. So why their obsession to get an inheritance in Israel for their father?
These righteous girls obviously respected the memory of their father. In conventional Jewish wisdom, a child is considered the legs of the parent: after a parent passes from this world, the actions of the children are still known and bring merit to their parents who are in the world of souls. A parent can still take pride in deeds of their descendants in the physical world. The daughters of Tzelafhad wanted to attach his name to a legacy in the holy land. That would be a tremendous merit for their father. Even after the five girls would marry and be a part of a new family, they wanted their father’s family name to continue on the land. They wanted the name of their father to continue because they identified with their father. He raised them and taught them, he was the most important man in their life.
Not only ancient times, but even in recent generations, women found fulfilment in continuing their family legacy. Women were taught that they were the crucial element in continuity. Women had the responsibility to take care of the home, and this was valued highly because the home is where the family comes together and educates the next generation. Jewish women, compared to other groups, were typically more educated and more likely to be literate. They were the mainstay of the house, having the most influence over the children and the mood in the house. Women understood that their behavior and values set the tone for the home. They don’t just make children, they make the house a home, and continue the family for generations.
In Jewish mystical tradition, women have the power of development and incubation. They can take a raw material and protect and nurture it and ensure it continues. This obviously refers to pregnancy and child rearing, but also to the family generally. A man by contrast needs to go out of himself, strike off on his own, and make something of himself. On a deeper level, remember the letters Yud and Hey we mentioned above, that are part of God’s name and were added to the family names as testimony of paternity. The word for man contains a Yud and woman contains a Hey, hinting that only when man and woman are together they bring Godliness. The other letters of both man and woman, without the Yud and Hey, are the letters for fire. Without any higher goals in their life, man and woman burn out.
A woman’s work is to continue her family, both her father’s legacy, and her own family with her husband. This is why our ancient women valued the land so highly. When the Jews would enter the holy land, Israel, their family would be attached to the land. The Jewish women identified as the pillars of their families, and a family on their ancestral land also works for continuity and legacy. They felt that their love for the land would reinforce the strength of their families on the promised land.
Nowadays a young women is told, indoctrinated rather, that they will only find real meaning outside of the house, by becoming something in the public sphere. She needs to be a “Strong independent woman” and become a doctor or lawyer or politician and make her own personal impact on the world. She is manipulated to believe that she will not find meaning inside her family, as the central figure of her own household and the one responsible for her legacy. Of course, we see many women reject this conditioning and start families, but the messages from the media do have a serious impact.
However, many women in America avoid or delay marriage while they are buying into the feminist brainwashing, only to realize that they truly wanted a family when it is already quite late. Many women don’t realize that they will find more meaning as a mother than as an employee until family is difficult or impossible to accomplish. The conditioning impacts even traditional families, women in religious circles are much more likely to work outside the house than in prior generations. Women are told (indoctrinated) that work and wealth will bring them meaning. But they are often frustrated that their work takes them away from their homes and families, the very things that bring them a deeper, more lasting sense of well being and fulfilment. I see a struggle in many a young woman between finding her value outside of the house, where modern society told her it will be, and also having the time and resources to build her own home, where she has immensely more value and impact.
There is another element at play among the daughters of Tzelafhad and their request for their father’s land. Without their own family plot of land, these girls would get suitors who would rely on their land to make a match. The suitors would know that these women had no land in their family, and would play up the advantage of marrying for land, for financial provisioning. While in ancient times especially it was totally normal for the husband to provide for wife and family, the five daughters wanted future husbands who would not rely on their assets to prove their value as men. I have a theory that the daughters of Tzelafhad knew that without family land, any man they would marry would have a subtle sense that some of their motivation was for economic security. They wanted to marry the best suitor because he was the best man, not because he brought a valuable asset to the table. With their own family land, the daughters of Tzelafhad could choose the best husbands on the basis of other factors, not for provisioning.
This ancient wisdom from five women helps us understand a recent change in modern culture. Even 60 years ago it was rare for a woman to work outside the house, the husband was considered the main provider. Nowadays women are not only working, but attaining more college degrees than men, and often making more money than men. When economic troubles hit, men are more likely to lose their jobs. Women with their own economic security are not impressed by a man’s ability to provision. However, some men don’t understand that fact and still rely on wealth and assets to impress. A man needs to work on himself in other areas and be a complete man, not a walking credit card. Of course, a man with wealth will get more attention from women, but he needs to ask if that is due to him or the money.
A woman must carefully consider the messages being pushed on her from modern society. For thousands of years, women developed the unique skills to be the central figure in the home. Women were responsible and hard working and found fulfilment in family and building a legacy. Today young women are being manipulated to devalue family. They are told to find themselves and become something. The reality is often this something is a cog working for someone else’s profit margin. We should be blessed with the wisdom to understand the messages and act for our ourselves and the interests of our families.