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Pinhas 5778

July 5, 2018

A D’var Torah for Pinhas 
by Rabbi Bruce Alpert (AJR ’11)

Merely to have survived is not an index of excellence,
Nor, given the way things go,
Even of low cunning.
Yet I have seen the wicked in great power,
And spreading himself like a green bay tree.
And the good as if they had never been;
Their voices are blown away on the winter wind.

Those familiar with the old Reform mahzor, Gates of Repentance, will recognize these lines from the poem Words for the Day of Atonement by Anthony Hecht. They remind us that, even if lacking in other virtues, survival itself is the necessary component and, in times of distress, a lofty enough goal.

Mere survival is the underlying theme of this week’s parashah, Pinhas. The various threats to that survival that have arisen over time – the sin of Ba’al Peor, the sin of Moses, Korah‘s rebellion, the strange fire of Nadav and Avihu – are cataloged here. Most particularly, the sin of the spies is recalled in the census that captures the changing – and in most cases decreasing – numbers among the tribes since their arrival in the desert forty years earlier. We have come a long way from the single family that, in the course of four generations, grew into a mighty nation that could threaten the world’s greatest military power.

But of all the Israelite sins of which this parashah reminds us, the one that caught my eye was the oldest. In the census we read that “The sons of Judah were Er and Onan. And Er and Onan died in the land of Canaan.” (Numbers 26:19)

For me, the story of Er and Onan, as told in Genesis 38, seemed a prelude to the more important story of Judah and Tamar. Yet seeing this single verse, amid the counting of all the other tribes and clans that made up the Israelite nation, impressed upon me the dimensions of their misdeed. Er and Onan are cut off from history; their lines, their heritage, whatever good was in them, is lost for all time. How might the tribe of Judah have been different – and with it, all of history – had they but survived?

At first, I wondered how much that mattered. After all, where are the Zephonites of the tribe of Gad, or the Jachanites of the tribe of Simeon, or the clans of any of the other tribes now lost to history? Does it really matter if one disappears now or a few generations hence? And besides, did not Er and Onan make a more enduring name for themselves through sin than did their cousins through continued propagation?

But then I realized, were it not for Shelah – Judah’s youngest son – we would not remember any of this. Lost would be Er and Onan, together with Zephon and Jachin and all the rest. Lost would be the Jews themselves, and with them, the Christians and the Muslims. As Hecht quotes Isaiah (1:9):

Except the Lord of Hosts had left unto us
A very small remnant,
We should have been as Sodom
We should have been like unto Gomorrah.

I detect no joy in this week’s parashah, but neither do I see the longing and the murmuring that has marked the various rebellions that have kept Israel in the wilderness for a generation. Instead there seems to be a hardened, almost grim determination – both on the part of God and the Israelites – to achieve their destiny. An entire generation may have died off; twenty-four thousand may have fallen in the latest plague; their leaders – Miriam, Aaron and now soon Moses – may have departed. None of that seems to matter anymore. Only one thing remains: survival.

Of course, merely to have survived is not an index of excellence, nor even of low cunning. But sometimes, survival is all we can manage. And it is the necessary precursor to any good which may yet happen. The Jews are a great people; perhaps the greatest the world has ever known. And the source of that greatness is an endless discontent with the world as it is. Our nature is to strive continually to make this world more just, more compassionate, more wise, more caring. And perhaps the greatest testament to that nature is our determination – when none of those lofty goals is within our grasp – to survive. We survive as our ancestors did: stubbornly, even at times angrily.  But we survive because we know we are charged with doing so much more.
Rabbi Bruce Alpert (AJR ’11) is Rabbi of Beth Israel Synagogue in Wallingford, CT, and is the chair of AJR’s Board of Trustees.