Pinchas: Living Heroically

Time To Step Up

How can we prevent the next plague?

Table for Five: Pinchas

In partnership with the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles

 Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist

It was after the plague, that the Lord spoke to Moses and to Eleazar the son of Aaron the kohen, saying: Take a census of all the congregation of the children of Israel from twenty years old and upwards, following their fathers’ houses, all that are fit to go out to war in Israel.

Num. 26:1-2


Rabbi Shlomo Seidenfeld, Freelance Rabbi, Scholar In-Residence Aish/JMI

Rabbi Noach Weinberg, the founder and architect of Aish Hatorah, famously directed his students to “find something that you’re willing to die for and live for it!” How profound and how empowering!

Every person, consciously or sub-consciously, wants to live heroically. Wants to live a life of elevated and energizing substance. What is self-evident is that a value is only impactful and transformative if one is willing to sacrifice for it. This, in my opinion, is the main reason why Israeli soldiers are quasi-celebrities for Diaspora Jews. We seek them out whenever we’re in Israel. We take pics with them. Send packages to them. Pray for them. Through them we touch and taste heroism and self-sacrifice. And then we go home!

The question is how can we, in our own lives, satiate that internal and eternal appetite for living heroically? Enter our verse. After Pinchas dramatically and boldly took the lives of two people who flagrantly flaunted Jewish morality, G-d commanded that a census be taken.

Interestingly, the word in our verse used for counting, Se-u, can also be translated as “to lift”. Torah language is never random and by using this word in the context of a census, G-d is subliminally conveying an empowering message. Se-u trumpets that we are only fully here, only fully ourselves and only fully armed when we live lives that are uplifting, no matter what the cost. Heroes don’t wear uniforms. They wear integrity. They wear compassion. They wear bravery. And they wear it daily!


Rabbi Adam Kligfeld, Senior Rabbi of Temple Beth Am

If one does not step forward when the moment calls for courage, another may in your place. One cannot hold the entirety of the world’s crises on one’s individual shoulders. But sometimes that inaction by you leads to utter inaction. In the most extreme of examples, to tragedy. We are urged “zerizin makdimin l’mitzvah”: zealous ones rush to a mitzvah. We ought not hold back, assuming another will take care of it.

This is the insight creatively drawn from our verse by Rabbi Joseph of Trani, a 16th/17th century Greek scholar. He notes it is widely accepted that verses beginning with “vay’hi”, (and it was) always portend something bad. What is portentous about our verse? After all, the plague has ended! The killing is over! He suggests that what is painful about our verse is imagining if Pinchas had arrived earlier, and thus may have used his own zealotry and piety to interrupt or prevent the catastrophe. While we may have mixed feelings about Pinchas’ mode of zealotry, the Torah praises him for helping the people cling to God, and to one another.

To Rabbi Joseph, he came, but he came late. In the interval, thousands died. Had he stepped forward before, thousands would have been spared. Was he just not present or aware? No one could fault him for that. But did he hesitate to be heroic? Sometimes that vacillation has enormous costs. And sometimes being courageous, on time, saves lives.


Ben Elterman, Screenwriter, Essayist, Speech Writer at MitzvahSpeeches.com

The word for “plague” use here is הַמַּגֵּפָ֑ה opposed to דֶבֶר. What is the difference between these two types of plagues? הַמַּגֵּפָ֑ה comes from the root meaning “to strike a heavy blow.” Other forms of the root include “closing” and “to chop off.” The plague from the end of last week’s parsha was particularly devastating as it killed 24,000, more than seven times the number killed for the sin of the Golden Calf. What does that have to do with counting the number of soldiers for conscription into the army?

We don’t like to think about it, but life isn’t an amusement park. One way or another, there will be some pain. If we take the easy road now, the problems that “plague” our world will fester and become literal plagues of a devastating magnitude. We can understand that being in the “army of Israel” (a more literal translation of צָבָ֖א בְּיִשְׂרָאֵֽל) means we are serving the good of the world like a soldier. So if we target these problems now with seriousness and resolve, the toil of fighting that war today may be difficult. But from that struggle, we will experience far less suffering than the plague that could have been prevented.


Lt. (Res) Yoni Troy, Councilor, Beit-Hatzayar, school for at-risk-youth

After a wave of disasters including a plague which kills 24,000, G-d decides to count Israel — again. Why recount the Israelites now?

This time, they have a new reason for sinning – they lacked purpose.

G-d, Bilam and Balak fight – but the Israelites are passive. They’re finally free, and happily eating their manna – but they’re bored. What do bored people do? They start exploring, visiting the neighboring village. Discovering some pretty girls, they soon abandon their beliefs.

The census builds identity, it creates purpose. You count every warrior by clan, promising them a plot of land. By connecting these wandering young men to their roots, to values, G-d gives them purpose. Soon, Moses and Aaron won’t be around to fight their battles, it’s time for them to take responsibility.

People like emphasizing how the military makes soldiers more mature. When I talk to my soldiers or young recruits, I disregard all that. If the army tried to be a program for self-development, it would be a pretty bad program and we would have a pretty bad army. Good soldiers realize we’re part of something bigger than ourselves; that’s what gave me — and still gives me — strength to serve my country in all kinds of difficult situations. The values I was raised on, my sense of connection, our feeling of responsibility, are my fuel. That’s how G-d counters the Israelites’ fall. By connecting them, giving them responsibility, giving them purpose. With those tools, they can withstand whatever adversities they may face.


Dini Coopersmith, Trip Director, Speaker, www.reconnectiontrips.com

The words used to say: “take a census” in Hebrew are:”שא את ראש כל בני ישראל”, which literally mean “elevate the heads of the congregation of Israel”. Netivot Shalom notes this interesting wording, and says there is a unique quality to “the congregation of Israel”. When the Jewish people are connected, as one unit, each person’s flaws are complemented by others’ strengths, and therefore as a whole, they are unblemished by sin and can fully connect to the Infinite God.

The concept of “the whole congregation of Israel” is perfect, indestructable, and shares a special relationship with Hashem. Only as a unit are the Jewish people called “my firstborn son” or “a partner/ spouse” to Hashem. When Bilaam, in last week’s parsha, tried to curse the Jewish people, he was aiming to break the connection between them and God. But when that didn’t work, he devised a plan to have the Midianite women seduce the Jewish men, thereby causing a rift between them and God, through sexual immorality.

In order to fully rectify this breach in the relationship, after the plague, there was a need to strengthen the unit of כלל ישראל, of the “congregation of Israel” in order to re-instate that close connection between God and the Jewish People. So, Moshe is told to “elevate the heads of the congregation.” Through counting them, their status is elevated. As a group, “the congregation” kicks in, and this will happen automatically.


With thanks to Rabbi Shlomo Seidenfeld, Rabbi Adam Kligfeld, Ben Elterman, Lt. (Res) Yoni Troy, and Dini Coopersmith.

Image: “The Numbering of the Israelites” by Henri Phillippoteaux, c. 1850


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