Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Pinchas - Tools of Power

This weeks thought - why does Pinchas contain both the story of the slaying of Kozbi and Zimri by Pinchas, and also the story of the daughters of Tzelophchad? Is there a relationship?

Our commentators understand that what Kozbi and Zimri, who are given names -as well as titles- during this week’s portion, were doing was actually fornicating (how often do I get to use that word) in front of the entire community, as well as Moshe, and it was for this reason that Pinchas slew them.

But let’s look a little closer at what was actually described. It is true that chapter 25 of Bamidbar begins by saying that the Israelites started mixing sexually with the Midianites, but that doesn’t actually seem to be what annoys God. In fact, according to the text, God gets mad when? After the Israelites slide into genuine idol-worship attaching themselves to the Baal -Peor (not when they have sex with the Midianites) and before Kozbi and Zimri show up on the scene. That’s when God really loses it and tells Moshe to get things under control. It’s at that point that an unnamed man and woman

בָּא וַיַּקְרֵב אֶל־אֶחָיו אֶת־הַמִּדְיָנִית לְעֵינֵי מֹשֶׁה וּלְעֵינֵי כָּל־עֲדַת בְּנֵֽי־יִשְֹרָאֵל וְהֵמָּה בֹכִים פֶּתַח אֹהֶל מוֹעֵֽד

“come and draw near to his brethren… and before the eyes of Moshe and all of Israel….and they were weeping at the entrance to the tent of meeting ”

This week, we get some additional information: Kozbi and Zimri aren’t just any old Israelite and Midianite! Verse 14 and 15 tell us: 14. And the name of the Israelite who was slain, who was slain with the Midianite woman, was Zimri, the son of Salu, a prince of a father’s house among the Simeonites. 15. And the name of the Midianite woman who was slain was Cozbi, the daughter of Zur; he was chief over the people of a father’s house in Midian. This tells us two things: first, they’re of equal rank - Kozbi is the daughter of a tribal leader, Zimri is himself a tribal leader. Second: They aren’t just Joe Israelite and Jane Midianite - they’re important people. And the Torah makes a point of telling us this.

This immediately reminded me of the story of Korach, which we read just two weeks ago, in which Korach, a Levite accused Moshe and Aaron of arrogance, because they had “taken” the “important” positions, when all of Israel is holy, but revealed in the course of the rebellion that he wasn’t really worried about all of Israel, but about getting more power for himself.

So let’s go back to the strangely ambiguous comment from last week’s parshah about the crying. When we read, it actually isn’t quite clear who is doing the weeping here, whether it is Israel, or whether it is Zimri and Kozbi.
Later on in our portion there’s another story involving women which is quite different, the story of Tzlophchad’s daughters, which we’ll get to in a few minutes. Regarding that story, there is an interesting comment in the talmud to the effect that women cry easily - and it makes all sorts of hay out of this pronouncement - to which the Avnei Ezer comments that tears are a form of bribery by word.

Even though this comment was regarding the section about the daughters of Tzelophchad, perhaps it more properly belongs here, regarding Zimri and Kozbi. What we have here is a situation in which Israel is suffering from a horrible plague in which people are dying left and right. Moses’ response is to say that God told him to kill everyone who worships Baal with the Moabites. And there’s one more piece: At the end of the chapter on Pinchas, the Torah comments that the reason we are to harrass the Midianites (not, mind you, the Moabites!) is because the Midianites harrassed you

בנכליהם אשר נכלו לכם

- tough to translate, but more or less, “in their conspiracy of villainy that they conspired (or were villians) about the matter of Peor and Kozbi” -one translation is possibly, “they did the same to you with beguilement about the matter of Kozbi.”

The implication is that there was a political move going on here. Maybe sex is a kindof gateway drug to idolatry at most - but what Kozbi was doing was using this plague as an opportunity to seduce people over to Baal worship, and Zimri was involved in this intrigue. The crying is a technique, bribery, as the Avnei Ezer puts it, not real tears, but a show. It seems to me that what angered Pinchas was not this couple -as the commentators suggest- having sex, but that a local power player went to someone of equal rank amongst the Midianites and brought her there to stir up the crowds against Moshe during this moment of great panic and fear. That makes this an episode much more like that of Korach than a rant about intermarriage. That’s why the Torah is so careful to go back and tell us the name and rank of this slain man and woman, when it didn’t before, in last week’s portion, when the incident actually happened.

No matter how we understand what Zimri and Kozbi were doing, they are using some very specific kinds of tools to get power. And these tools are illegitimate. To the contrary, Tzelophchad’s daughters were no one special, their father was no one special, they didn’t have any special priveleges. Yet, instead of playing at power games, they were completely forthright. And Godself answered through Moses, saying that they were right.
And the reason that all of this is wrapped up here in this parshah is because there is a third piece here that talks about leadership: God tells Moses to take Joshua and bring him in front of the people and put his hands on him and commanded him (Bamidbar 27: 19 & 23) which he does.
ultimately, what can we draw from this? Joshua and the daughters of Tzelopchad represent two diferent stations of people, and how they can appropriately gain authority: the rabbis valorize the daughters of Tzlopchad (Bava Batra 119b) as

חכמניות הן, דרשניות הן, צדקניות הן

wise women, they were exegetes, they were virtuous. Anyone can legitimately wield power by pursuing justice and learning, but once you have the power of authority by some other means, one has to be very careful. Korach and Zimri, both people who had heriditary standing in the community - positions that they had come by only because of an accident of birth, are not forgiven for abusing that power. The Torah juxtaposes Joshua to them to show that the highest authority is one remains commanded - that is, someone who does things not because of hisown benefit, but because he is obligated to keep in mind his care for the community. That’s what made Moshe such a great leader; the Torah is very careful to say that Moses was the humblest of men -it was not for his own benefit that he led Israel, but because he combined the leadership qualities of the daughters of Tzlophchad and Joshua - he had a keen sense of justice, which he felt obligated to pursue, even when it menat he had to flee his home; and he was commanded - he maintained authority only in order to do the work that he must.

What’s the difference between Tzelophchad’s daughters and Kozbi? Kozbi gets up and starts acting like a stereotypical female - we don’t even know what it is that she and Zimri want, except that it clearly has to do with the Midianites and some sort of conspiracy to woo the Israelites away to worship their Gods. She is using sex to win Israel over. It’s a neat trick - and we all know, sex works.


שקר החן והבל היפי

- grace is false and beauty vain (Mishlei 31:30). In the end , the Torah sees the sexual antics of the Moabite women and Kozbi’s tears as two of a variety of different tactics - here they’re all about sex, but Korach as well numbers among these strategists - the fault is misusing the rules, rather tan changing them to make them better.
To the contrary, Tzelophchad’s daughters, who not only were women like Kozbi, but weren’t even powerful women - their father was no one special, they didn’t have any special priveleges. Yet, despite being powerless, they had the gumption to go before Moses, Elazar the Kohen, and the leaders and the whole assembly of Israel and speak out. They didn’t cry, and they didn’t use a man to make their case for them. They simply presented a rational case and hoped that despite living in a society in which they had little power, their argument would be enough. One might answer that they ran a pretty big risk - what if Moshe hadn’t brought their complaint to God? The answer is that it wasn’t going before Moshe that got God’s response. Not since Abraham, did someone think to go to the top and challenge, not the individual preference, but the rule. Everyone else challenges not God, but Moshe! (Think of Korach, which opens with Korach and his followers staniding before Moshe and Aaron and accusing them of being arrogant). The daughters of Tzelophchad were not after a personailty contest. Moreover, their challenge was not a challenge only for themselves and their personal status, but one which was brought for women as a whole - any woman who had no brothers was affected by their plaint.

The point we bring here is not that one should follow channels (as they say, Chas v’shalom!), but rather that there are legitimate and non-legitimate ways to acquire power. Even the powerless have choices. No matter how powerless an individual is, they have the ability to find a way to change society and make it right, rather than simply exploiting the tools which are already there to benefit themselves.

crossposted to

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