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As you read about and watch this week’s Torah portion, some ideas to consider:
Is zealotry ever warranted? Why and why not?
What do Zelophechad’s five daughters have to teach you about speaking truth to power?
What do you think of Moshe’s reaction to being told he is going to die without going into Israel?
If you can remember all the way back to last week, we ended the parasha about the talking donkey (Balak) with the story of a zealot priest by the name of Pinchas who stabs to death Cozbi, the Midianite princess, and Zimri, the Israelite son of a chief in the Tribe of Simeon, while they are having sex. Pretty salacious and graphic — and an insight into the personality of Pinchas.
This week’s parasha is actually named after that very same priest, Pinchas, about whom we will say more later. For now, though, we concentrate on one of the most promising and up-beat stories of the entire Torah: the story of the five daughters of a man named Zelophechad.
Zelophechad: hard to pronounce but important to remember because of the way he might have inspired his daughters to speak truth to power. In English, you might pronounce his name Z’LOFF-HOD, the way the storyteller does in the G-dcast episode. In Hebrew, we pronounce it with a twist at the beginning, TZ’LOAF-CHOD (with a guttural ch sound for the final syllable).
The storyteller rightly zeroes in on the story of the perfectly articulated case of the five women, Mahlah, Noah, Hohglah, Milkah, and Tirtzah, the unwed daughters of Zelophechad, from the Tribe of Manasseh. The women state that they should be allowed to inherit their father’s portion of land after his death, just as would be the case if they had brothers — if Zelophechad had sons. But he didn’t, and so they come forward to Moshe/Moses to point out the inequity of this situation.
Now, here is the astounding part: Moshe presumably doesn’t know how to answer them because he brings their case forward to God. God replies,
“Rightly do the daughters of Zelophechad speak,”
and continues to amend the laws that had been previously understood concerning who may inherit land so that the tribe continues to hold onto its territory (Numbers 27: 7-9). Later, in chapter 36, we get an amendment to this law, which the storyteller points out.
This is a giant step forward for the women of the day (biblical times) and an essential message to all of us today. Namely, when something seems out of joint and plainly unfair, one must step forward to make the case for equality. Is it just coincidence that the Defense of Marriage Act was struck down this week by the Supreme Court? Hopefully, Mahlah, Noah, Hoghlah, Milkah, and Tirtzah will continue to motivate and even encourage us to bring forth arguments for equal treatment before the law to the legal authorities who have the power to change the status quo for the better.
Immediately after settling the issue of daughters being able to inherit, God tells his servant Moshe to ascend to the top of Mt. Abarim and look over the whole land that is promised to the Israelites. He is then told that he will not be allowed to enter the Land (Numbers 27: 13-14). Is Moshe shocked? He doesn’t seem to be. God gives him the reason (again, verse 14) and maybe, just maybe, Moshe realizes that his sin was sufficiently grievous, such that he merits this harsh sentence. Also, maybe Moshe understands that he is of the old generation and no longer an optimal leader.
Out of his love for the people he has shepherded all these years he asks God to appoint a successor (“so that the Lord’s community will not be like a flock without a shepherd”). God instructs him to take Joshua/Yehoshua, the son of Nun, and stand with him in front of Eleazar, the priest, in full view of the people and lay his hands upon the new leader, investing in him the power and the wisdom to lead the people into their Promised Land.
I think you might be wondering about the sin that Moshe merits. The hint comes when God says that Moshe and Aaron “rebelled against My word in the Wilderness of Zin…to SANCTIFY Me through the water” in front of the complaining masses of thirsty Israelites. God’s instruction at the time was for the two brothers to speak to the rock, making it crystal clear that it was the same God who redeemed the Israelites from the slavery of Egypt who is now slacking their thirst, bringing forth water from the rock, again saving them. Instead, Moshe and Aaron said to the Israelites, “shall we bring forth water for you?” implying that it is they who are the saviors of the people, rather than God. God knows that this people have little faith and need to be reminded of God’s miracles all the time — God needs to be sanctified and made holy at every opportunity. And in this Moshe and Aaron failed big time, and thus their punishment not to enter the Promised Land.
I said I would return to the character of Pinchas, who is a complicated figure because of his zealotry. As Moshe imagines who will lead the people after his death, one might imagine that Moshe would think that Pinchas would be the logical successor. After all, Pinchas is from the priestly clan, and has already shown himself to take leadership (when he killed Cozbi and Zimri to avert the decimation of the entire Israelite nation). In last week’s parasha, Numbers 25: 11-12, Pinchas is even granted a covenant of peace, a “brit shalom.” But… one letter of that word, shalom, the letter vov (which looks like a straight line and gives that “o” sound), is calligraphied with a break in its middle. Kind of a visual hint or reminder that true peace cannot come from zealotry. And true leaders cannot be hotheads, who take a spear in their anger, and aim to kill.
Every year, like clockwork, we get to the last chapter of the Torah on the very last holiday of the fall season, Simhat Torah (literally: “rejoicing with the Torah”) coming exactly 23 days after Rosh Ha-Shana (the new year.) On Simhat Torah, we read Deuteronomy chapters 33 and 34, describing the death of Moses, the greatest prophet of Israel, the last to speak with God face to face. Then we begin the Five Books of Moses (aka the Torah) all over again with Bereshit (Genesis) chapter 1 verse 1. Since Bereshit typically gets all the press (who can resist the story of creation with its Garden of Eden mysteries…) perhaps it’s worth a moment to reflect on the end of the torah, called, V’zot Ha’bracha (And this is the blessing).
Moses winds up his lengthy speech (basically the entire book of Deuteronomy) by speaking to each tribe and bestowing a final blessing, in the form of a poem. Each tribe is reminded of its past and the figure after whom it is named—each of Jacob’s sons. NEW SENTENCES: After all, the tribes need some final message as they are at the brink of going into the Land promised to their forefathers, way back in Genesis. They will continue under new leadership—under Joshua—and will finally take hold of their special inheritance.
Back in Deuteronomy, after Moses’s final poem, we read a prose narration of how Moses, at the ripe old age of 120, takes his leave of this life. He has a final conversation with his best friend and confidant, God; God tells Moses to take one last look at the whole land set before him, from the vantage point of Mt. Nebo. Moses sees the entire land bequeathed to the Israelites, although he himself will never enter it.
Verses 5-7: So Moses, the servant of the Lord died there, in the land of Moab, at the command of the Lord. He buried him in the valley in the land of Moab, near Beit-peor; and no one knows his burial place to this day. Moses was a hundred and twenty years old when he died; his eyes were undimmed and his vigor unabated.
Wow! Moses dies with all of his vigor at the age of 120, his eyes “undimmed!” Pretty remarkable! And who is it exactly that buries Moses? The text hints that it is none other than the Holy One, the Rock, Moses’s closest and most intimate ally—God.
This last poignant scene has inspired many poets, painters, and other artists to create their own vision of what happened in those sacred moments of transition. It is Moses’s transition from life to death, but it is also the transition of the Children of Israel to a new period in their development, with Joshua at the helm.
Here’s how Zora Neale Hurston, the African American folklorist and author, describes the scene in her 1939 novel, Moses Man of the Mountain:
But Moses did not sleep on the mountain. He sat on the mountain top for a while gazing at the dim shapes of things over Jordan in the night…He took his rod in his right hand and lifted it and Nebo trembled. The moon in its reddest mood became to him a standing place for his feet and the sky ran down so close to gaze on Moses that the seven great suns of the Universe went wheeling around his head. He stood in the bosom of thunder and the zig-zag of lightning above him joined the muttering thunder…The voice of the thunder leaped from peak to plain and Moses stood in the midst of it and said “Farewell.” Then he turned with a firm tread and descended the other side of the mountain and headed back over the years.
The German (Christian) poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, in the early years of the 20th century writes “The Death of Moses”:
None of them were willing, just the dark
defeated angel; choosing a weapon, he cruelly approached
the commanded one. But even he
went clanging backward, upward,
and screamed into the heavens: I can’t!
For through the thicket of his brow, Moses
had patiently noticed him and gone on writing:
words of blessing and the infinite Name. And his eyes
were clear right to the bottom of his powers.
So the Lord, dragging half of the heaven behind him,
came hurling down in person and made up a bed from the mountain;
laid the old man out. From its orderly dwelling
he summoned the soul; and spoke of much they had shared
in the course of an immeasurable friendship.
But finally the soul was satisfied. Admitted
enough had been done, it was finished. Then the old
God slowly lowered down over the old
man his ancient face. Drew him out with a kiss.
and into his own older age. And with the hands of creation
he closed the mountain again. So it would be like one,
one created all over again among mountains of earth,
hidden to us.
Translated from German by Franz Wright; from Modern Poems on the Bible by David Curzon.
And finally, a favorite, by 20th century Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai:
Moses saw the face of God just once and then
forgot. He didn’t want to see the desert
not even the Promised Land, only the face of God.
In the fury of his longing he struck the rock,
climbed Mount Sinai and came down again, broke
the Tablets of the Law, made a golden calf, searched through
fire and smoke, but he could remember only
the strong hand of God and His outstretched arm,
not His face. Moses was like a man who tries to recall
the face of someone he loved, but tries in vain.
He composed a police sketch of God’s face
and the face of the burning bush and the face of Pharaoh’s daughter
leaning over him, a baby in the ark of bulrushes.
He sent that picture to all the tribes of Israel,
up and down the desert, but no one had seen,
no one knew. Only at the end of his life,
on Mount Nebo, did Moses see and die, kissing
the face of God.
Translated by Chana Bloch and Chana Kronfeld from Open Closed Open, “The Bible and You, the Bible and You and Other Midrashim.”
What do all three modern renditions of the scene of Moses’s death have in common? How are they different? Why did both poets imagine that Moses died with a “kiss from God”?
How does the description of Moses’s death make you feel? Is there still regret, or does Moses know it is his time to die? Do you ever imagine your own ideal death?
Outside, even here in northern California, we feel the seasons changing — time to shut the windows at night. It’s the new month of Tishray, the month loaded with Jewish holidays. It’s officially fall, which signals the very end of the yearly cycle of weekly Torah portions. This week’s portion is VaYelech which means “And He Went” (Deuteronomy 31) — the “he” referred to is Moses. This little chapter and the 3 following it comprise the epilogue to the 5 Books of Moses (the Torah). We hear God’s voice telling Moses that it is time for him to die (Moses himself admits aloud that at the age of 120, he no longer has the strength to lead the nation in battle).
In VaYelech, we read Moses’s preamble to his final poem, or “song”, as it sometimes called; he is tidying up loose ends. And what does he say? He repeats one phrase several times:
Be Strong and Courageous…don’t be afraid of what is before you, the Lord, your God, will not forsake you; He will be with you.
Along with this message we read of the appointing of Joshua, to take over as leader.
But how will Moses enable the people to remember to “be strong and courageous”? Good question! He and God have figured out that they must write down all of the history and laws so that this “teaching” or “Torah” will exist forever and will be recited in front of the entire people — men, women, children and strangers in the community. God and Moses both know that there will be backsliding, that things will go downhill, but, the fact that “the Good Book” exists in writing means that the “Teaching” will be around as a guidebook, “in the mouths” of the people, remembered and followed for generations.
For your consideration:
When someone tells you, “put that in writing” what does it mean? What is it about the act of “writing” down words on paper (or parchment) that makes it different from only hearing those same words spoken?
What is the written legacy you would want to leave behind before you die? What do you want your family and closest friends to know about life?
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