Tough questions: Bringing change while staying true to Jewish traditions, history

Rabbi Aaron Braun

By Rabbi Aaron Braun, Guest Torah Columnist

Torah Portion: Pinchas (Numbers 25:10−30:1)

Change is hard. It often feels that as Jews, we are programmed to be resistant to any kind of change. The world around us, however, forces us to recognize change.

Recently I sat down to lunch with a friend who happens to be an Apostolic pastor. He probed questions of the Jewish faith, inquiring, as he explained, to understand more about where his faith has come from. While I was happy to share with him some details of my own faith, one thing I made clear: as Jews today we are not the same as the Jews he wishes to know more about.

The Jews of 0 BCE didn’t have commercially produced food. They didn’t wear suits and had no issues with what we would term modern technology. Take for instance the advancement of science. Early halachic (Jewish Law) decisors never had to grapple with electricity and cars as they impact Shabbat, or lab-grown meat as it impacts kashrut. All these issues change the very nature of how we act, interact and appear as a people.

This week in synagogues across the Diaspora we read from Parshat Pinchas. Parshat Pinchas brings two very distinctive narratives about societal change and how we address it. In one case, Pinchas, after whom this portion is named, has just acted with zealotry and committed murder. In a perplexing reaction, G-d instructs Moses: “Behold! I give him (Pinchas) My covenant of peace.”(Bamidbar 35:12).

Pinchas acts as society had lost its moral compass and had begun to fall apart. His shocking act leaves many commentators struggling to explain how G-d could react so favorably to such a brash action without any proper due process. Rabbi Yissachar Dov Rubin wrote in his work Talelei Oros, “Pinchas acted only… out of love for G-d, and because of heartfelt concern for the Jewish nation’s welfare.” Rabbi Rubin frames Pinchas’s actions as a form of tough love. He shocked the people by harming one, so as to save the souls of many.

Certainly it isn’t a story that sits well with any of us. Even if we set aside the action itself, the notion that one individual can unilaterally determine and act on the will of G-d is a scary thought. It certainly speaks to a discomfort with a completely centralized power, rather than a Sanhedrin or Rabbinical court that might debate and decide what is best for its people.

The second case of societal change occurs later in the portion when the daughters of Zlafchad came before Moses to request change. What we know about Zlafchad is rather limited. We know that he died in the wilderness and while he had been banished as a sinner, he had not participated in a societal sin, but rather an individual sin. In other words, he was imperfect, but not a harm to society.

His daughters came before Moses because they did not believe their father’s memory should be blotted out from the mere fact that he had no sons. Furthermore, they felt that just because they were women, shouldn’t mean that they wouldn’t have an inheritance. “Why should the name of our father be omitted from among his family because he had no son? Give us a possession among our father’s brothers.” (Bamidbar 27:4)

From Moses’s reaction, it is clear that the common practice was that only sons had previously inherited. We can’t reasonably assume that this is the first time a father had died without any sons. Perhaps, though, this was the first time the daughters had come forward. Moses, rather than telling these women, Mahlah, Noa, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah, that it just wasn’t how things were done, or rebuff them for even thinking to ask for such a change, Moses instead took their request as honest and faithful.

He presented their request directly before G-d. G-d responded, not with a cold ruling or a statute, but rather with a judgment of character. “The daughters of Zlafchad speak properly.” (Bamidbar 27:7). Society must develop to fit the will of G-d and the needs of the people. But there is an ideal way to approach change and then there is the result from reaching extremes. Pinchas was certainly a dramatic result to an extreme that society had reached. While he found favor in G-d’s eyes, it was a risky action to take and hope for approval afterwards. Mahlah, Noa, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah show a far more ideal way to go about change in a meaningful and G-d fearing way.

What is most moving, for me, about the narrative is not just G-d’s response but the way the daughters come to ask. They “stood” before Moses. They didn’t grovel; they stood with pride, respect and all the authority of anyone else in society. They had the right to request change for the betterment of the community.  They weren’t told to stop making trouble and they weren’t merely turned away. They were heard and considered with love and understanding and their concerns were taken directly to G-d.

While we can’t always expect that G-d will handle our concerns on such a personal basis, we dare not simply tell people to silence their desires or concerns. Otherwise we risk another Pinchas who may or may not act with the support of G-d. That’s how Judaism stays authentic. We must not hide from the tough questions that face us, nor should we reject the difficult questions. It is how Judaism stays true to our traditions and history, and it is how it develops with time. It develops with yirat shemayim, fear of G-d, and kavod haTorah, respect for our Torah, so that it may serve every generation from now until the coming of the Moshiach (Messiah) and beyond.

Rabbi Aaron Braun is rabbi of Northbrook Community Synagogue.

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