Pinchas – A thought for the week by Michael Lewis

We are now in the three weeks of mourning leading up to Tisha B’Av. They began last Sunday on the 17th Tammuz and it is a period of reflection on many tragic events in our history.

The Sedra this week is Pinchas, a stream of seemingly random stories. It begins by continuing the story of Pinchas, which we read last week and then goes on to another census, an allocation of land between the tribes as an inheritance, the empowerment of Joshua to succeed Moses and details of the laws of daily and festival offerings.

What is always a source of interest is the story of the daughters of Zelophehad. They come before Moses to protest the details of the land allocation which would disinherit them. Moses asks God and the response is fascinating

כֵּ֗ן בְּנ֣וֹת צְלָפְחָד֘ דֹּֽבְרֹת֒ נָתֹ֨ן
Zelophehad's daughters speak justly

Laws that were appropriate to address in the wilderness would need to be reinterpreted for a new situation. It would not be because of a temporary change of circumstances but something that would be a turning point in our history. Among the events that the three weeks asks us to recall are the loss of both Temples.

The loss of the first Temple would result in major change. In Babylon the months took on new names and new customs arose. Without a Temple new forms of prayer were needed and the “Barchu”, the call to prayer, which we still use today came into use.

When the second Temple was established new practices appeared. They would be based not just on physical events but also on social changes. They needed to address the reality of integrating the Jews who came back with the Jews who had remained.

We had to adapt to the loss of the second Temple, to dispersion and to a hostile world. We had to face the reality of the Shoah and the establishment of the State of Israel.

There has always been tension between those who accept change and those who gain comfort from rigid interpretation and fear of breaching established practice; each approach deserves respect. Halachah is living Judaism. We do not have a Moses to intercede. If, like Zelophehad’s daughters, we always “speak justly” then we keep ourselves alive and preserve our inheritance.

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