Rabbi Michael Gold

Jewish Family & Sexuality Issues-Rabbi Michael Gold


“Command the Israelite people and say to them: Be punctilious in presenting to Me at stated times the offerings of food due Me, as offerings by fire of pleasing odor to Me.” (Numbers 28:2)

The holiest spot in any synagogue is the Aron HaKodesh “Holy Ark”, usually on the Eastern wall, where the Torah scrolls are kept. Many synagogues have multiple Torah scrolls. But three are kept in front, read on a regular basis. One scroll is rolled to the weekly Sabbath Torah portion. It is read every Sabbath morning, and if there is a daily service, Sabbath afternoon, and Monday and Thursday mornings. It is only rerolled once at Simchat Torah, where we turn from the end of Deuteronomy to the beginning of Genesis. (Remember the Blockbuster sign – “Be kind, Rewind.”)
A second is the festival scroll. It is rolled from place to place for the special readings on each of the festivals. One of my goals over the years as a rabbi is to find an appointed person to roll these scrolls, although often I have to do it myself. The Torah readings vary greatly during the cycle of festivals.
Then there is a third scroll, often called the Pinchas scroll. It is rolled to the end of this week’s portion. It contains the additional reading, often called the Musaf reading, read from a second scroll. On Rosh Hodesh (the New Moon) and each of the festivals we read from this scroll. On festivals we take out two Torahs, the regular reading and the Musaf reading. This Torah is kept rolled at all times to this section. The irony is that over the years, this is usually the first section of the Torah to wear out. When a scribe checks if a Torah scroll is kosher, they usually begin with this section.
What is in this section? It contains all the special animal offerings brought to the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. There were two daily offerings and special additional offerings for the Sabbath, Rosh Hodesh, and each festival. Often the Rabbis of the Talmudic age would learn some profound details from each of these offerings. For example, on the first day of Sukkot there were 13 bullocks offered, the second day 12, the third day 11, until the seventh day when there were 7. That is 70 bullocks altogether over the seven-day festival, symbolizing the 70 nations of the earth. When the Temple was standing, we would bring an offering for each nation of the world on Sukkot.
The Temple is no longer standing and animal sacrifices stopped long ago. So why do we still read this section? In the Reform Movement they have removed it. On the other hand, in Orthodox Judaism there is an additional Amida (standing prayer) called Musaf where they pray for the reestablishment of these offerings. The traditional wording asks God to bring us back to our Holy Temple, where we will once again offer these various offerings. Most the Orthodox Jews I know say this prayer, but I do not know many who truly desire the rebuilding of the Temple and the reintroduction of these animal sacrifices. But today there is a special yeshiva in Jerusalem to train priests (kohenim) in all the arcane laws of these offerings, being prepared in case the Temple is rebuilt.
In Conservative synagogues such as the ones where I have served, we do read the offerings and pray the Musaf service. But we have changed the wording. Instead of praying for the reestablishment of animal sacrifices, we say “there are fathers used to offer the following sacrifices.” It is a small change in wording that reflects a huge change in theology. We recall the past, but we do not seek to reestablish the past. Orthodox rabbis have totally rejected this change in wording.
Personally, I find something powerful about remembering the past while moving beyond the past. Last week I mentioned how the great philosopher Maimonides saw animal offerings as a concession to the needs of the people in ancient times. Our ideas about worshipping God have evolved. Nonetheless, we still keep a Pinchas scroll of the Torah in our Holy Ark, ready to read about these animal offerings.


“There shall be one goat as a sin offering for God, to be offered in addition to the regular burnt offering and its libation.”  (Numbers 28:15)

This portion contains the special offerings brought to the ancient Temple throughout the cycle of festivals.  These offerings are read on these various festivals as they arrive on the Jewish calendar.  Most synagogues keep a Torah rolled to this portion, prepared to be read on these festivals.  And the section read most often is the one for the monthly Rosh Hodesh (new month) festival.

The reading for Rosh Hodesh leads into one of my favorite passages in the Talmud, one that I analyzed at length in my PhD dissertation.  Each month there is a special sin offering brought “for God.”  What was God’s sin?  The answer is given by R. Shimon ben Pazi in the Talmud (Hullin 60b).  At the beginning of creation God shrunk the moon.  Let me summarize this fascinating Talmudic passage.

At the beginning of Genesis, on the fourth day of creation, God made the two great lights, the great light (the sun) to rule by day, and the lesser light (the moon) to rule by night.  Why does the Torah say, “two great lights” and afterwards, the “greater” and the “lesser” lights?   At first the sun and the moon were equal.  The moon complained, “Can two kings wear one crown?”  God replied to the moon, “You are correct.  Shrink!”  The moon demurred, “I point out a problem and you cause me to shrink!”  God tried to appease the moon, saying that the cycle of festivals will be measured through her.  But the moon was still not satisfied.  God, feeling guilty, says that on each new moon Israel shall bring a sin offering for Me, for My sin of shrinking the moon.

Nonetheless, the story does not end there.  In some future age the light of the moon will once again equal the light of the sun.  According to the prophet Isaiah, in the Messianic future “The light of the moon shall be like the light of the sun, and the light of the sun shall be sevenfold, like the light of the seven days” (Isaiah 30:26).  In the primordial past and in the ideal future, the light of the moon and the light of the sun will be equal.

At this point the Zohar, the great book of Jewish mysticism, takes off on this idea.   The sun and the moon are not simply heavenly bodies.  The Zohar sees gender as fundamental to the structure of the universe.  The sun represents the masculine aspects of the universe, the moon represents the feminine aspects of the universe.  In the beginning the masculine and the feminine were equal.  And someday in the future, they will again become equal.  But for the moment God has shrunk the moon, diminished the feminine voice.  For this, God feels guilty.

According to the mystics, the masculine and the feminine aspects of reality are out of balance.  The moon, who once illuminated the world on her own, now only reflects the light of the sun.  But this is temporary.  In the future, the moon will give off light of its own.  Obviously this mystic teaching is not meant to be scientific reality.  It is a spiritual reality, the masculine and the feminine will once again become balanced.

Now we can understand the power of this mystical interpretation of a Talmudic passage.  In the ideal beginning, the masculine and the feminine were equal.  But historically, the masculine voice began to dominate, and the feminine voice became secondary.  Jewish tradition, like many other religious traditions, tried to silence the feminine voice.  The Talmud teaches (Berakhot 24a), kol isha erva “the voice of a woman is sexually suggestive.”  In the Orthodox world a woman is forbidden to sing in front of a man.  Women faded into a secondary role, no longer in the public sphere, as the moon became secondary to the sun.

But in our lifetime, this is changing.  Women are taking more public roles in all areas of life, including Judaism.  Women are rabbis and cantors.  It was long my dream that a young person who grew up in my synagogue would become a rabbi.  Recently it happened.  A young woman, who became a bat mitzvah in my synagogue, became an Orthodox rabbi, ordained by a liberal Orthodox seminary.  In the Orthodox world this is still radical.  But it is happening.  The voice of women is being heard, with many women becoming major teachers of Torah.  The sun and the moon are becoming equal once again.  Contemporary life is richer because of this.


“When the plague was over, the Lord said to Moses and to Eleazar son of Aaron the priest, take a census of the whole Israelite community from the age of twenty years and up, by their ancestral houses, all Israelites able to bear arms.”  (Numbers 26:1 – 2)

The Torah mentions the plague that occurred after the events of Pinchas, and then God immediately orders a new census.  Rashi comments that the plague and this second census are related.  The census shows God’s love for Israel.  “It is like a shepherd counting his sheep after they have been attacked by wolves.”  When the population numbers come in, the population has been diminished, at least by a small amount.  Plagues are a way that nature lowers population.

Many scientists see a relationship between plagues and population.  Plagues are nature’s way to limit the number of people on earth.  The Justinian plague in the 6th century killed about 50 million people.  The black death of medieval Europe killed one third of the population.  The Spanish flu of 1918 killed hundreds of thousands of Americans.  And of course, Covid-19 deaths are well over 2 million worldwide, 600,000 in the Unites States alone.   According to these scientists, if the population becomes too high, nature sends a plague to bring down the population.  Some thinkers see this as a good thing, nature’s way of urging zero population growth.

What is the ideal population?  Scientists use Game Theory to calculate this.  (The classic example of Game Theory is the famous Prisoner’s dilemma, worth studying.  Or watch the 2001 Academy Award winning film A Beautiful Mind, starring Russell Crowe as John Nash, one of the founders of Game Theory.)   The game scientists use to study populations is called Hawks and Doves.   It is a fascinating thought experiment.

Imagine a world of hawks and doves, each striving to acquire limited resources.  A hawk will always fight. and a dove will always back down.  If a hawk meets a dove, the hawk gets everything. and the dove gets nothing.  If a dove meets a dove they split the resources.  It a hawk meets a hawk, they will fight until one gets the resources and the other is badly injured or killed.  What is the ideal balance between hawks and doves?  In a world of all hawks, each hawk will realize that the risk of injury is worse that the reward of the resources.  In a world of all doves, eventually some dove will realize it is more advantageous to become a hawk.  In the real world, scientists can study this to come up with a mathematical formula on the best balance between doves and hawks.  Scientists call this equilibrium.

This kind of Game Theory is used by biologists to study the balance between predators and prey in the wild.  How many coyotes and how many deer are necessary to achieve balance?  But could this game be applied to measure the equilibrium between people and pathogens, between populations and pandemics?   The problem is, are people doves or hawks?  On the surface we seem to be the doves, socially separating, wearing masks, waiting until enough of us either get sick or get vaccinated, so that we can develop herd immunity.  But to many thinkers, humans are the hawks.  We are the aggressive ones because of our overpopulation and incursion into animal habitats.   The award-winning British broadcaster and naturalist David Attenborough described humans as a “plague on the earth.”

If humans were just a species sharing the earth with other species, like hawks and coyotes, Attenborough has a point.   But if human beings have a special quality, created in the image of God, with a special role to play on earth, then we cannot be treated like any other species.  Maybe nature uses plagues and pandemics to control human population.  But each individual human is infinitely precious in the eyes of the Creator.  Our portion contains a second count of the population, one that takes place after a plague.  Perhaps the Torah is trying to teach us that, even in the midst of a horrible pandemic, every human being counts.


“The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, Harass the Midianites, and strike them.”  (Numbers 25:16 – 17)

I was privileged to watch the streamed version of the musical Hamilton after seeing it on the stage a few years ago.  It has become a classic part of American culture.  One moment that received a cheer from the live audience was when Hamilton said, “Immigrants, we get the job done.”  It was a reference to a major ethical issue today but a true anachronism.  I am sure Alexander Hamilton never said this.

There is a move afoot to protest Disney’s streaming of the show.  The claim is that it celebrates people who were racist, such as Hamilton’s marriage to one of the Schuyler sisters, a family involved in the slave trade.  Hamilton himself probably never owned a slave, but Thomas Jefferson, another major figure in the musical, certainly did.  When asked about these facts, Lin-Manuel Miranda, the author and composer of Hamilton, tweeted that it is “a flawed musical about flawed human beings.”

Events in the news are focused on judging people in the past by the ethics of today.  Recently Princeton University removed Woodrow Wilson’s name from its public policy school.  Wilson was a former president of Princeton and the president who led our country through World War I.  He was also a friend of the Jews who appointed Louis Brandeis as the first Jewish Supreme Court Justice.  He was also a racist, as were many other people of his time.  Racism is unacceptable. but are we judging a figure from the past by today’s standards?

Mt. Rushmore is a true American landmark.  Nonetheless, some are calling to remove Thomas Jefferson’s face from the mountain.  (Some are calling to get rid of Mt. Rushmore altogether.)  Jefferson was a great orator who penned the Declaration of Independence.  He was our third president and a political leader during the founding days of our republic.  He was also a slave owner, as were many others in his day.  Slavery is wrong, but are we judging a figure from the past by today’s standards?

Moses was a great man who led his people out of slavery in Egypt and gave them the Torah.  Nonetheless, in this week’s portion he calls for a violent revenge against the Midianites.  The reason is that the Midianite women, urged by the pagan prophet Balaam, had led the Israelites into what can only be called “an orgy.”  Pinchas stops it with an act of violence, killing the ringleaders.   Moses calls for revenge.  In a particularly difficult passage we will read next week, Moses becomes angry at the people for not executing the Midianite women.  (It is one of the most unethical moments in the Torah, and most rabbis are happy it falls during the summer when they are on vacation, so they do not have to speak on this issue.)  Moses the lawgiver becomes Moses the avenger.  Revenge is wrong, but are we judging a figure from the past by today’s standards?

The way Jewish tradition deals with difficult ethical passages is through ongoing interpretation.  For example, Rashi comments that the phrase “Harass the Midianites” is an ongoing present tense.  Since there are no present Midianites, we can interpret Moses’ words to mean that we must continue the ongoing fight against the uncontrolled sexual urge.  A difficult ethical moment, through reinterpretation, can make ethical sense.  The Rabbis are constantly reinterpreting difficult Biblical passages.

I am a strong believer in the history of ideas.  All ideas move forward and develop, changing over the course of generations.  Perhaps this is most apparent in the history of ethics.  What is acceptable in one generation becomes unacceptable in the next.  We have seen that in our own lifetimes.  When I first became a rabbi, gay marriage was unthinkable.  Now it has become an accepted part of our culture.

Let me end with a personal story.  When we adopted our children, we needed a home study to be sure we were fit parents.  The Jewish Family Service at the time could not do the study.  We turned to Lutheran Social Services.  Martin Luther in his day was great religious visionary but also a vicious anti-Semite.  By the standards of today, his behavior was unacceptable.  Should we have shunned an agency that carried his name?  Fortunately, we did not.  We recognized that ethics change and develop over time.

“One kid of the goats for a sin offering for the Lord shall be offered.” (Numbers 28:15)
Last week the world celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of humanity’s walk on the moon. We can never forget those immortal words of Neil Armstrong, “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” Everyone is sharing where they were at that magical moment. I remember well. I was in Zagreb, Croatia (then Yugoslavia), bumming my way through Europe like a good college student. The bed and breakfast where I stayed showed the moonwalk on television, with a commentary in Serbo-Croatian. I even bought a Serbo-Croatian newspaper with pictures and headlines about the moonwalk. I regret that I long ago lost that paper.
The moon plays a central role in the Jewish understanding of reality. There is a tradition, which I will admit that we have not followed in our synagogue, called kiddush levana “blessing the moon.” It is recited on Saturday night after the Sabbath ends, on an evening with a clear sky when the moon is waxing. We dance three times before the moon and then recite three times, “As I dance before you but cannot touch you, so may my enemies be unable to touch me.” Some authorities have said that the line about not touching the moon needs to be changed after 1969. There have been some attempts by creative rabbis to rewrite the ceremony. By the way, the words David Melech Yisrael “David King of Israel” also comes from that ceremony.
Part of the importance of the moon is that we establish Jewish holidays by the phases of the moon. It is always a new moon on Rosh Hashana, a growing moon on Yom Kippur, a full moon on Passover and Sukkot, and a shrinking moon on Hanukkah. When my daughter was at the Hebrew Day School, she won a mitzvah project prize for a demonstration of the phases of the moon. It had a dial that showed the name of the holiday in one slot and what the moon looks like in the other slot.
In Jewish tradition we bless every new moon (Rosh Hodesh). This week’s portion speaks about the offerings that were brought in the ancient Temple for the new moon. The section includes a very strange statement. On the new moon we are obligated to bring a sin offering for God. What was God’s sin that we must bring a special offering? This question leads into one of my favorite passages from the Talmud, and later from the Zohar. The Talmud (Hullin 60b) speaks about how in the creation story of Genesis, God makes the two great lights, the great one (the sun) to rule by day and the small one (the moon) to rule by night. Why does it first say great light and then small light?
Originally God made the sun and the moon equal in size and light. The moon complained, “can two kings wear one crown?” God said to the moon, “You are right. Shrink yourself.” The moon responded, “Because I complained, you tell me to shrink.” God tried to appease the moon. “You will become the sign for all the festivals of the year.” But the moon was not to be appeased. So why do we bring a sin offering for God? Rabbi Simeon bar Lakish taught, because God shrunk the moon. Later the Zohar would take off on this idea of God shrinking the moon, but more about that next week.
There is something mysterious and magical about the moon. That is why there are so many religious rituals built around it. One of the problems of walking on the moon is, has some of that mystery been lost? If we bring back rocks of the moon, can we still bless it as a mysterious place? When the first man in space, the Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, came back from orbiting the earth, he is quoted as saying, “I looked and I looked and I did not see God.” As our technology grows, is our spirituality lost? I like to think that the adventure of walking on the moon was a highly spiritual experience. Our ancestors were deeply religious as they danced towards the moon. I believe that our generation who have seen a man walk on the moon, can react with the same joy and spirituality.

“Phinehas, the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, has turned my anger away from the people of Israel, while he was zealous for my sake among them, that I consumed not the people of Israel in my jealousy.” (Numbers 25:11)
For the past two weeks we spoke about Sigmund Freud and those inner drives deep in our psyche which Freud called the id. Those drives must be controlled and rechanneled, what Freud called sublimation. We compared the id to the yetzer hara, the evil inclination in Judaism. Judaism teaches that rather than removing the evil inclination, we must conquer and rechannel it. As the Rabbis taught, “Without the evil inclination no person would build a house, get married, or have a baby.” We applied these ideas to two of our deepest drives, anger and greed.
This week I want to turn what Freud considered the most powerful drive within the id, the sexual drive (Eros). This deep sexual drive defines us. As children we go through various phases – the oral, the anal, for boys the Oedipus, for girls the Electra. Healthy individuals learn to channel that sexual drive in a healthy way. But the desire is always there. Similarly, the Rabbis identified the sexual drive with the yetzer hara. There is much Rabbinic discussion on how to control and channel this drive.
The uncontrolled sexual drive is the theme of the end of last week’s and the beginning of this week’s portion. Last week we read about Balaam who tries to curse the Israelites, but God turns the curses into blessings. Balaam does not simply go home defeated. He comes up with an alternative way to destroy the Israelites. Attack them in their weakest point, their sexual drive. Balaam arranges the Midianite women to come onto the Israelite men in what can best be described as an orgy. Pinchas finally puts a stop to this orgy through an act of violence against the two leaders. As a reward for his actions, God gives Pinchas a “covenant of peace.”
The Talmud goes into greater detail on Balaam’s action. Balaam tells Balak, “I know how to stop the Israelites. They despise any kind of lewdness. But they also desire nice linen garments. Make enclosures with beautiful wall hangings, with older women outside selling linen garments and younger women inside. When they go to buy garments, they will step inside and nature will take its course.” In the end, it was the Midianite women who served as prostitutes. Israel went to war with Midian after these events, and in this war Balaam was killed. (Interesting question – in the Torah the Midianites went from being the good guys like Moses’ father-in-law to becoming the bad guys in this story. Why did that happen?)
Judaism sees the sexual drive as extremely strong. In fact, King David agrees to allow God to put him to the test to see if he can control this drive. That evening David sees Bathsheba bathing on the roof. David cannot control himself. (If you do not know what happens, read II Samuel, chapter 11.) Unfortunately, David was not the only great man who could not control his sexual drive. When I was in high school working for my school paper, I was privileged to drive into the Hollywood area of Los Angeles to interview a young actor named Bill Cosby. At that point he was in a popular show called I Spy. The Cosby Show was several years in the future. Who would have thought that he would become the symbol of sexual harassment and be prosecuted for rape?
Christianity and Judaism took different approaches towards controlling the sexual drive. In the New Testament the ideal became celibacy. The apostle Paul taught that people should be celibate like him, “But if they cannot control themselves they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn [with passion]” (II Corinthians 7:9). Judaism on the other hand has never seen celibacy as an option. In the Talmud one rabbi practiced celibacy (Ben Azzai) and he preached to his students to marry and have children. When his students challenged him for not following his own advice, he said, “What can I do? I am married to the Torah. The world will have to be populated by others.” (Yebamot 63b)
The story of Balaam and Pinchas speaks of the sexual drive out of control. Jewish tradition speaks of the sexual drive under control, channeled for the purpose of serving God. Unfortunately, as I look out at our contemporary culture, this fundamental drive seems out of control.

“Therefore I grant to him my covenant of peace.” (Numbers 25:12)
I have always been troubled by the beginning of this portion. Pinchas, the grandson of Aaron, displays zealousness and devotion to God by killing two people. Certainly, the two are ringleaders in an orgy involving the Midianite women and the Israelite men. Their behavior threatens to undermine the people as they prepare to enter the Promised Land. Perhaps his actions were justified under the circumstances.
Following this act of double murder, God grants Pinchas a special brit shalom – a covenant of peace. Whatever personal qualities Aaron’s grandson may demonstrate, peace is not one of them. In fact, people today who call for violence against the enemies of Israel often use Pinchas as a role model. He was zealous for the cause and did what was necessary under the circumstances of the moment. Yes he was violent. As Reish Lakish says in the Midrash, “Those who are merciful when they should be harsh end up being harsh when they should be merciful” (Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7:16). The Torah sees Pinchas’ violent action as totally justified. But why a covenant of peace?
Perhaps it is worthy to look a bit deeper into the meaning of the Hebrew word shalom – peace. Shalom is mentioned constantly in our daily prayers, and is the standard greeting in Hebrew when meeting someone. As Jerry Herman wrote in his Broadway musical Milk and Honey, “Shalom shalom, you’ll find shalom, the nicest greeting you know. It means bonjour, salud, and skoal, and twice as much as hello.” What does it really mean?
Shalom comes from the Hebrew root sh-l-m which means “whole” or “complete.” Shalom means wholeness. Shalom is not only a lack of war, but a lack of brokenness. That is why a ceasefire, however valuable, is not really shalom. Shalom means not only that the fighting has stopped, but that a wholeness is part of the final agreement. Until there is total peace, the world is incomplete,
Let me give an example from Hebrew. The root sh-l-m also means to pay. Ani meshalem means “I pay.” What does this have to do with peace? If I owe someone money and fail to pay what I owe, there is a brokenness between us. On the surface we may get along but underneath a tension exists. Something is incomplete about our relationship. Only after I pay what I owe does a kind of wholeness enter the relationship. Paying a debt is literally making peace, at least in terms of the Hebrew language.
Now we can return to the story of Pinchas and the orgy between the Midianite women and the Israelite men. If the events came to a conclusion and the sexual activity stopped, wholeness would still be lacking. A brokenness had entered the relationship between the people Israel and God. There had to be a way to stop the orgy once and for all, for the Israelite people to become at one with God once again. In this case it took extreme action on the part of Pinchas. When Pinchas killed the ringleaders, the rebellion of the Israelites was over. There could be a wholeness between Israel and God once again.
When God made a covenant of peace with Pinchas, it was not to condone zealousness or violence. It was to recognize the necessity of rebuilding a wholeness between the people of Israel and their God, a wholeness that had been broken. Now a period of peace would begin. Only after such a peace could the Israelites begin the difficult job of conquering the Holy Land.
Today we speak of war and peace, knowing that often peace is not real peace. The prophet Jeremiah declared, “Peace, peace, and there is no peace” (Jeremiah 6:14). Even as we pray for peace, so too should we pray for wholeness in our relationships with others. This is the ultimate message of the Torah.

“There shall be one goat as a sin offering for the Lord, in addition to the regular burnt offering and its libation.” (Numbers 28:15)
This portion contains a very strange verse. On Rosh Hodesh (the new moon signifying a new month), which falls at the end of this coming week, we must bring a sin offering for God. What was God’s sin? And why Rosh Hodesh?
To answer that question, I must share one of my favorite teachings from Rabbinic tradition. It is a teaching that has real consequences for life today. The Talmud (Hullin 60b) speaks of the relationship at the beginning of creation between the sun and the moon. When God creates the sun and the moon on the fourth day of creation, the language is unusual. “God made two great lights, the greater light to dominate the day and the lesser light to dominate the night, and the stars.” (Genesis 1:16) First the verse says the moon was a great light, then it says the moon was a lesser light. Which was it? The Talmud teaches that in the beginning the sun and the moon were equal. But then God shrunk the moon.
Rabbi Shimon the son of Pazzai taught, at first the sun and the moon were equal. The moon said to God, can two kings wear one crown? God answered the moon, you are correct, go shrink yourself. The moon replied, because I taught something proper, I have to go diminish myself. The Talmud continues with an entire dialog between God and the moon. In the end, God shrinks the moon. But then God feels guilty for His action. So we have among the offerings for Rosh Hodesh, which celebrates the cycles of the moon, a special offering. Israel must bring a sin offering as atonement for God’s action in shrinking the moon.
So far this is a cute story, but when the kabbalistic tradition gets a hold of it, the story takes on a powerful new meaning. In kabbalistic symbolism the sun represents the masculine aspects of reality, and the moon represents the feminine aspects of reality. The masculine and feminine principles were originally equal. But, God shrunk the feminine principle and made it secondary to the masculine principle. Nonetheless, someday in the future these two principles will become equal once again. To quote a prophecy of Isaiah, “The light of the moon shall be like the light of the sun, and the light of the sun shall be sevenfold, like the light of the seven days.” (Isaiah 30:26) True redemption will happen when the sun and the moon shine with an equal light, when the masculine and the feminine aspects of reality become equal once again.
This kabbalistic teaching has profound implications for today. There was a time in the primordial past when the feminine voice equaled the masculine voice and there was a balance. But through much of history, not just in Judaism but in all Western religions, the feminine voice was silenced. Judaism became what men taught, the Talmud is about men speaking to other men. Prayer services were conducted with men’s voices, with women if they came at all, behind a mehitzah or barrier. The rabbis and the cantors were all male. Modesty required that female voices be limited to the private sphere of home and family.
In so many ways this is changing today. Women are becoming rabbis and cantors. Women are becoming scholars of Talmud. Even among some of the Orthodox, those most resistant to change, there has been the ordination of female spiritual leaders, recognized as teachers of Torah from a distinctly feminine voice. Usually the Orthodox will not use the term “rabbi” but perhaps rabbah (feminine form of rabbi) or morah ruchanit (spiritual teacher). In Israel a group of women, many of them Orthodox in personal practice, gather at the Western Wall on Rosh Hodesh to read from the Torah and lead prayer services. This has created huge controversies in Israel including the arrest of Women of the Wall leaders. But the women continue to meet and ask that their voices be heard. Throughout the Jewish world, Rosh Hodesh has turned into a woman’s holiday. The world is moving towards a time when the masculine and feminine voices will be back in balance.
In 1982 Harvard professor Carol Gilligan published a groundbreaking book called In a Different Voice. She spoke of the difference between how men and women view the world. In particular, she studied the moral development of little girls and contrasted it with Lawrence Kohlberg’s famous study of the moral development of little boys. She developed an ethical system known as feminine care ethics, in contrast to rule oriented male ethics. The essence of Gilligan’s work is that there is a difference between the masculine and the feminine way of seeing the world. When the feminine voice was silenced, the world was thrown out of balance. Perhaps this was the sin of God, shrinking the feminine voice.
The Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs has a program called “Hearing Men’s Voices.” Today we are hearing both men’s and women’s voices. The world is a better place for it.

“Let the Lord, Source of breath of all flesh, appoint someone over the community who shall go out before them and come in before them, who shall take them out and bring them in, so that the Lord’s community may not be like sheep that have no shepherd.” (Numbers 27:16-17)
The time has come to choose a leader to take over for Moses. The first thought would be – why not Pinchas? After all, the portion is named after him. Pinchas, in a moment of zeal, kills the ringleaders of an orgy that threatened to undermine the very purpose of the people Israel. God rewards him with a Covenant of Peace. Certainly Pinchas is a man who shows passion. And yet passion alone is not enough to choose a leader. That passion must be tempered by wisdom.
God picks out a leader for Moses to appoint by laying hands on him. The new leader, the man who will take the Israelites into the Promised Land, will be Joshua the son of Nun. What qualities did Joshua have to cause God to choose him? (I would like to give credit to Rabbi Hayyim Angel and his article Moonlit Leadership: A Midrashic Reading of Joshua’s Success for many of the ideas in this message.)
Joshua has been by Moses side on Mt. Sinai and through the years of wandering. He certainly shares in Moses’ wisdom. And yet he had also has made mistakes along the way. Twice he had misunderstood what God wanted, including misinterpreting the events of the Golden Calf. In the incident of the spies, he did speak out in favor of conquering the land. But he spoke only after Caleb spoke first, perhaps waiting to see which way the wind would blow before committing. Like most leaders Joshua was far from perfect.
Nonetheless, Joshua seems to have a quality that eluded Moses. Through the years of wandering in the desert the people constantly rebelled against Moses. Through the years of conquest of the land there were no rebellions against Joshua. Joshua somehow earned the trust of the people, something a successful leader needs. Why?
The Torah teaches that when Moses lays his hands on Joshua, passing on the mantle of leadership, he only passes on part of his glory. God says to Moses, “Invest him with some of your authority, so that the whole Israelite community may obey.” (Numbers 27:20) Why some and not all of Moses majesty. The Talmud takes off on this passage with a fascinating insight. “The face of Moses was like that of the sun; the face of Joshua was like that of the moon.” (Baba Batra 75a) That is why Rabbi Angel called his article Moonlit Leadership.
What is the difference between the sun and the moon? The Hasidic Rebbe Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter of Ger wrote, “Unlike the sun which dominates the sky, the moon allows other heavenly bodies to shine.” Moses who had seen God face-to-face was an overwhelming presence. Joshua knew that true leadership means not overwhelming others, but allowing others to step forward and share in the glory. The true leader is the one who can share leadership, and in so doing, can help others also become leaders. Like the moon in the sky, a true leader does not dominate but is able to delegate and share the glory. It was this aspect of Joshua’s personality that allowed him to conquer the land with a minimum of controversy.
One of the most difficult tasks for anybody in a position of leadership is learning to pass the torch to someone knew. What should one look for in a leader? The passion of Pinchas is important, but leadership must include more than passion. The wisdom of Joshua, who learned Torah next to Moses, is vital. But perhaps the insight of the Talmud and the Gerer Rebbe want to share is that the best leaders are those who do not try to dominate, but who are willing to share the leadership. True leaders help others become leaders.
“And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, Revenge the Midianites, and strike them.” (Numbers 25:16-17)

It has been a terrible few weeks in Israel. Palestinian terrorists kidnapped and murdered three young teenage Israeli boys. In an alleged act of revenge, Jewish terrorists kidnapped and murdered a young teenage Palestinian boy. In revenge, Hamas launched a barrage of rocket fire from Gaza into Israel. Israel in self defense bombarded sites in Gaza. So in a short period, terrorism led to revenge which led to war. Will it end?
Revenge is a central theme of this week’s Torah reading. God commands Moses to order the Israelites to take revenge on the Midianites. In particular, the Midianite women had led the Israelites into harlotry and away from their holy mission. Later Moses will discipline the Israelites for sparing the lives of these women. It is a difficult chapter for moderns to understand and appreciate. Many rabbis are relieved that this portion falls in the middle of the summer, so that they are on vacation and are able to avoid speaking about it. I am not yet on vacation.
How can we understand God’s commandment to take revenge? To begin to answer that question, let me say that the drive for revenge is a fundamental part of human nature. It is one of the reasons why human conflicts go on and on for generations. Think of the Hatfields and the McCoys in rural America, and their ongoing murders of each other’s families. Or think about the popular media. Whether a classic novel like The Count of Monte Cristo, a Broadway musical like Sweeney Todd, or a popular television show like Revenge, getting even is part with our enemies is part of our culture. We go through life crying out, “Don’t get mad, get even!”
If we assume that revenge is a fundamental part of human nature, we can understand the Torah’s cry for revenge. We can even understand those rabbis today who have called on Israel to take revenge against the Palestinians. However, if you believe that the central message of the Torah is to rise above our human nature towards the holy, then we can question any calls for revenge.
The Torah itself in one of its loftiest passages outlaws revenge. In the Holiness code in the middle of Leviticus, the Torah teaches, “You shall not avenge, nor bear any grudge against the children of your people.” (Leviticus 19:18) There seems to be times when the Torah gives in to the worst of human nature, and other times when the Torah teaches us to transcend our nature. The reason is because even if the Torah is God’s word, that word is mediated through real human beings who live in a certain place and time. The Torah was given to Moses in a world where revenge was a human norm.
The Rabbis interpreted these laws of revenge out of existence. They said that they only apply to a certain people who live at a certain time. There are no more Midianites running around to harass us. And to compare the modern Palestinians to the ancient Midianites is an unfair analogy. Today we can fairly say, in keeping with our tradition that revenge is wrong.
Long ago a great Chinese thinker named Confucius taught, “When you plot revenge, you better dig two graves.” What he is trying to share is that revenge may destroy the other but it also destroys one’s self. I shared a similar Rabbinic teaching last Shabbat morning. The great Rabbi Meir was being harassed by a neighbor, who was making his life miserable. He prayed for the man’s destruction. When his wife Bruriah overheard, she told him that he was acting improperly. Rather than pray for his neighbor to be destroyed, he should pray for his neighbor to change his ways. Eventually his neighbor did change his ways.
Revenge is in the air today. One understands why. When someone causes us pain, we want to cause them pain. But long ago the Rabbis reinterpreted the words “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” to mean paying a fine, not taking revenge. Perhaps it is time for all of humanity to rise above human nature and move beyond revenge.

“Let not our father’s name be lost to his clan just because he had no son. Give us a holding among our father’s kinsmen.” (Numbers 27:4)
I was a mathematics major in high school and in college. Briefly I even did graduate work in mathematics. During those early years of my life, I earned money tutoring math. In high school I tutored algebra; in college I began tutoring calculus. I preferred calculus to algebra for reasons that will become clear in a moment. What this has to do with Judaism will also become clear in a moment.
Algebra is static. It is about discreet quantities. You are given a problem and have to solve it for x or for y. Change is not part of algebra. Calculus on the other hand is dynamic. It deals with qualities that are always changing. What is the slope of a continuously changing function? What is the area under a continuously changing function? If algebra is concerned with what is, calculus is concerned with what is becoming. Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz, the inventors of calculus, saw a world that was constantly in motion, constantly changing.
Algebra versus calculus. Static versus dynamic. A snap shot versus a video. Anatomy versus physiology. Frozen versus being in motion. We live in a world that is dynamic, constantly in flux, constantly changing. And so too is religion constantly in flux, constantly changing. The spiritual question we need to ask is not “where is it” but rather “where is it going?” “How is it changing?”
There is a perfect example in this week’s Torah reading. It involves the first change in the role of women in the life of the community. The five daughters of Zelophehad approach Moses saying that their father died in the wilderness leaving only daughters. In those days only sons, not daughters, could inherit property. Therefore the daughters of Zelophehad complain that their father’s property would be lost to the family. Moses makes a ruling that for its day and age was probably radical; when there are no sons, daughters can inherit. Next week even this ruling is limited. In order to keep the property within the tribe, daughters who inherit must marry within their own tribe.
This is hardly radical feminism. But it is a first little step towards women’s rights. If we see the Torah as something static, this case seems relatively trivial. It is hardly an embrace of the equality of women. But here is where calculus comes in. What changes are being made? How are these changes continuing over the course of Jewish history? The Bible makes a minor change in the laws of inheritance favoring women. Are there more changes to come?
The Talmud, hardly a pro-female document, has entire sections dealing with the protection of the rights of women. The Rabbis of the Talmud established a ketubah, a document guaranteeing that a wife would be protected by her husband’s property if they divorced or by his estate if he predeceased her. The Rabbis of the Talmud also gave the wife the right to tell her husband, keep your property and I will live by my own earnings. Later in the Middle Ages, the Rabbis ruled that it was forbidden for a man to arbitrarily divorce his wife. Divorce could only happen with her consent.
The dynamism in the role of women has continued until our own day. Jewish tradition is recognizing the spiritual needs and possibilities of women. In liberal Judaism women participate in services, read from the Torah, and have become rabbis and cantors. But even in Orthodox Judaism there are changes. With all the controversy in Israel about Women at the Wall (can women pray at the Western Wall in Jerusalem wearing a tallit and singing together), most people forget that W.O.W. was founded by Orthodox women. Successful Orthodox synagogues build an eruv, allowing women pushing baby carriages to attend Sabbath services. Even at the ultra-Orthodox Chabad in my community, the Torah is carried through the women’s section.
My mathematics days have taught me a valuable lesson. Do not take snapshots. Look at the whole video. Religion can only be appreciated if we ask the question, “Where is it going?” Religion, like all human endeavors, is dynamic.


“Phinehas, the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, has turned my anger away from the people of Israel, while he was zealous for my sake among them, that I consumed not the people of Israel in my jealousy.” (Numbers 25:11)
Greetings from Philadelphia, PA. My wife and I are in the city of brotherly love, visiting my brother and his wife. We went to the wonderful new National Museum of American Jewish History. I highly recommend it. Next week we will be visiting my wife’s family in Boston, MA. Earlier this year I visited my family in Los Angeles. It is a joy to know people in a variety of places.
Life is with people, to quote a popular book written many years ago about Jewish life in the European shtetl. But people can also be difficult. To quote my dad’s words to me when I first told him of my plans to become a rabbi, “You have to deal with people, and people are life’s most difficult commodity.” This week I want to talk about a particular kind of difficult person – the zealot.
This week’s portion is named for a man praised for his zeal. Pinchas was a true zealot. He came forward and slew the ring leaders of a sexual orgy which threatened the spiritual existence of the people Israel. God rewarded him a brit shalom – a “covenant of peace. Yet the later rabbis were troubled by Pinchas’s zeal. Why did he not convene a normal court of law and give these ring leaders a fair trial? Did he not set a dangerous precedent by taking matters into his own hand? Could zealous action, even for a righteous cause, set a bad example for Israel?
Later in the portion Moses must choose a new political leader to take over his role as guide and teacher of the people Israel. He overlooks the hero of our portion – Pinchas. Instead Moses chooses Joshua, who has a much more even tempered personality. There is a long history of Zealots in Jewish life, going back to a group who attacked the ancient Romans for their rule over the Holy Land. Some historians would say that it was the zealots who were responsible for the Roman destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. (Next week Jews throughout the world begin a three week period of mourning leading up to Tisha B’Av, recalling these tragic events in Jewish history.)
Let us move forward to our own time. We all know zealots. They are people whose passion for a cause has turned into an obsession. There is no room for discussion or dialog. They are right and everybody else is wrong. Their cause is all they can talk about. And they are unwilling to let go, consider another point of view, or even give someone else a chance to speak. There are zealots regarding religion – “believe what I believe.” There are zealots regarding politics – “vote how I vote.” I have even met zealous vegetarians – “eat what I eat.” They all share something in common; they are very difficult to be around.
Part of what makes such zealots so difficult to be around is they do not give anybody else room to hold or express different opinions. Part of living in a world with other human beings is to allow them to be who they are, even if they are different from whom we are. To be human is to live in a world with multiple beliefs about every subject – from religion to politics, and from food to art. It is to listen to others – even people who truly disagree with us. It is to listen to others as much as we speak to others. Or as the Rabbis so aptly put it, God gave us two ears and only one mouth so we will listen twice as much as we speak.
We all have opinions, sometimes strong opinions, on a variety of issues. But opinion turns into zealousness when we leave no room for others to express an opinion. Part of living in a world of people is to allow them to express their point of view, and to listen respectively, even when we passionately disagree.



“There shall be one goat as a sin offering for the Lord, to be offered in addition to the regular burnt offering and its libation.” (Numbers 28:15)

Parts of this week’s portion are read on each of the festivals throughout the year, including Rosh Hodesh (the new moon). The portion contains the various special sacrificial offerings for each festival. These offering have become part of the Musaf service, the additional service for Shabbat, Rosh Hodesh, and each festival. But the Rosh Hodesh offerings has one of the strangest sentences in the Torah, and that leads to a powerful midrash (Rabbinic interpretation).
Each Rosh Hodesh there is to be a special sin offering “for the Lord.” I can understand why we humans need sin offerings. But why does God need a sin offering? What could God have possibly done wrong that God must bring an offering to get back into God’s own good graces. It is a strange passage.
The rabbis have an answer that has to do with the moon; after all, this is an offering on each new moon. According to Rabbi Simeon b. Pazzi in the Talmud (Hullin 60b), on the fourth day of creation God originally made two great lights. Then God made a greater light and a lesser light. There is a contradiction. Was it two great lights, or was it a greater light and a lesser light? Originally the sun and the moon were created equal. The moon came to God and said, “Is it possible for two kings to wear one crown?” God replied, “You are right, go make yourself smaller.”
The moon was deeply upset that her greatness was diminished. When God saw this, God felt guilty. According to Simeon b. Lakish, God said to bring a sin offering for making the moon smaller. Although this tale appears in the Talmud, it was further developed in the Zohar, the great compendium of mystical writings from medieval Spain. God will someday bring the moon back to equal status with the sun. This contains ideas that are relevant today.
According to mystics, the sun represents males and the moon represents females. Jewish tradition has long identified the moon with women, perhaps based on the fact that both have a monthly cycle. According to this interpretation, male and female voices were originally equal. Somewhere along the line God shrunk the female voice so that only male voices are heard. That is why, through so much of classic Jewish literature, we hear the voices of men talking to other men. Our tradition has a definite male slant.
Nonetheless, God feels guilty for shrinking the female voices. Someday God will bring the female voices back to full force, and once again recreate the balance between the male and the female. In fact, much of kabbalah is concerned with finding a balance between the male and the female aspects of God. Just as they were in the past, so in the future we will hear the voices of women.
Why is this important? In 1982, Harvard University Professor Carol Gilligan, a psychologist and feminist, wrote a classic book called In a Different Voice. She taught that women deal with ethical problems differently from men. Women are more apt to see issues in terms of cooperation rather than rules. Based on her work, a number of rabbis have taught that women give a different perspective on the Torah. Women can give us insights into God’s laws that are different from men.
At one point the voice of men and the voice of women (the sun and the moon) were equal. God shrunk that voice of women (the moon) so that only the voice of men (the sun) have come down to us through tradition. But God felt guilty and ordered a sin offering to be brought with each new moon. God made the promise that in the future the voice of men and the voice of women will both be heard. Or as both the midrash and the mystics put it, both the sun and the moon will be restored to their original power. Today we are beginning to hear female voices once again. This ancient mystical teaching is being carried out in our lifetime.


“And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, Phinchas, the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, has turned my anger away from the people of Israel, while he was zealous for my sake among them, that I consumed not the people of Israel in my jealousy.”
(Numbers 25:10-11)

Greetings from Santa Barbara, CA. I flew into Los Angeles missing the craziness of the Michael Jackson memorial service by a day. (It was still hard to get a rental car.)
Yesterday while still in Florida, I surprised myself. I sat through the entire memorial service for pop singer Jackson. I am not even particularly a Michael Jackson fan. But I am a fan of popular culture, and the media attention made me look again at this complex personality. Besides as a rabbi, I often conduct funerals for a living (but never for two hours). How would the funeral of such a complicated personality be conducted?
I suppose the words that come to mind when I think of Michael Jackson are words I spoke the Shabbat after his death. “He was a man with immense talents, but he was a man with immense demons.” He changed the music industry and touched millions of people. Yet he was haunted through much of his adult life, and deeply unhappy. How do we capture that balance between the talent and the demons?
The music at the funeral was certainly glorious. But my favorite spoken words were those shared by the son of the late Rev. Martin Luther King. If you are going to be a street sweeper, be the world’s greatest street sweeper. Each of us is given gifts by God. And we need to be the greatest we can be in pursuing those gifts, whether a musician and entertainer or a street sweeper. People can be great, make a difference in the world, and still be haunted by demons.
This brings me to our weekly portion and another complicated human being, Pinchas the grandson of Aaron the High Priest. Pinchas, in a moment of passion and anger, took action and killed the ring leaders of an orgy between the sons of Israel and the daughters of Moab. As a result God rewards Pinchas with a covenant of peace. The rabbis debated at great length how a man can receive a reward from God for a violent act, even a necessary violent act. Pinchas did what he needed to do in the heat of the moment. What intrigues me is how it affected him.
The Zohar points out that when the Torah writes Pinchas’ name at the beginning of this portion, it writes it with a diminished yud. Yud is the tiniest letter of the Hebrew alphabet, and in Pinchas name it becomes even tinier. Yud is also the first letter of God’s name. Part of God’s image was diminished in Pinchas. In his moment of passion he lost part of himself. He lost part of his sense of being in the image of God. He too became a man haunted by demons.
I understand how violent if necessary acts can haunt a person. I remember once a conversation with a member of an elite military unit. He had often been forced into actions that most of us could not fathom. He did things many would consider immoral to protect the security of his nation. But he felt somehow diminished by his activity. This tough military officer actually asked me, “Do you think God will ever forgive me?” We can do important work and still feel haunted.
What would I have said if I had been invited to speak at Michael Jackson’s funeral? I would have spoken about his gifts and his talents, and how he gave them to the world. He probably would not have spoken about his demons, except to mention them in passing. Eulogies are a time to remember a person’s positive accomplishments, not his or her shortcomings. But everybody who watched that funeral knew that Michael Jackson had his demons; his yud had been diminished.
There is something universal about this message. Each and every one of us has great gifts to give the world (even if it means being the world’s best street sweeper.) And each of us is haunted by our own demons. We each have some area in our lives where we feel God’s image has been diminished in our own souls. I suppose one of life’s great questions is – how do we strengthen our gifts while overcoming those demons. Michael Jackson struggled with that question. In our own way, we each must struggle with it.



“Pinchas son of Eleazar son of Aaron the priest has turned back My wrath from the Israelites by displaying among them his passion for me, so that I did not wipe out the Israelite people in My passion.” (Numbers 25:11)

Last week I wrote about the gentile prophet Balaam. Although he had eyes, he was unable to see. In fact his donkey could see with more clarity than Balaam could. That was the whole point of the talking donkey that saw an angel of God and the anger of Balaam who could not see the angel. Here was a perfect example of the Biblical verse, “Eyes they have but they cannot see.” (Psalms 135:16)
This week we read about the reward, which Pinchas received (through a very public act of violence.) Pinchas put a stop to the provocative behavior of the Midianite women and the Israelite men. How did such an orgy get started? According to Jewish tradition, it was Balaam who provoked the Midianite women to seduce the Israelite men. Even after God had turned all of Balaam’s curses into blessings, Balaam still could not see the virtues of Israel. He wanted to provoke them. And so he brought about an incident of sexual excess and eventually a plague, which descended on Israel. All of this happened because Balaam was blind to Israel.
What blinded Balaam? In his case it was money. Balak had offered him a substantial gift if he would curse the Israelites. When the curses did not work, he tried an alternative plan. In next week’s portion we will read how Balaam finally died in the battle against the Midianites. But we look at Balaam now and see a brilliant gentile prophet who could not see because of money. As the Torah teaches, “Do not take bribes for bribes blind the clear-sighted.” (Exodus 23:8)
The story of Balaam raises a fascinating question. Why do people with perfectly good eyesight remain blind to something that is right in front of them? I see this all the time. For example, a woman going through a messy divorce will come to me for counseling. She will share horror stories about her soon-to-be ex-husband. He drinks, he cheats on her, he cannot earn a living, he does not want to pay child support, etc. She will paint of a picture of a true bum, and I will listen sympathetically. But finally I will ask the key question – “Did you see any of this when you were dating him?” The answer I usually receive is, “I guess I saw signs, but he was such a nice guy.” How often do we date someone without really seeing him or her? We are blinded by our wishes and our hopes, and too often by sexual attraction.
Being blind to reality is a universal human phenomenon. I am studying philosophy of science this summer. In my studies, I learned some fascinating facts. Sometimes people cannot see reality because they approach nature with pre-conceived notions. For example, before Copernicus, before Galileo, before Newton, people in the West assumed that the stars were fixed and unchanging. In 1054 there was a great supernova visible throughout the world. There are many Chinese, Japanese, and Arab accounts of this new bright star that slowly faded. But there are virtually no European accounts. It is almost as if such an appearance in the sky would so radically upset people’s notions of the heavens that people could not see it. Sometimes our own pre-conceived notions blind us.
The notion that preconceived ideas prevents us from seeing reality sounds strange. But there have been psychological tests, which also point in this direction. Subjects have been shown a deck of cards with an incongruent card – for example, a black jack of hearts. Usually they see it as a jack of spades or clubs; our minds are not trained to see black hearts in a deck of cards. We see what we are pre-disposed to see.
When the Psalmist speaks of having eyes and being blind, it is not just speaking about ancient idols. It is speaking about all of us. Perhaps the lesson of Balaam and Pinchas is to begin to remove our blinders and try to see the world as it really is.



“This is the enrollment of the Israelites, 601,730.”
(Numbers 26:51)

At the beginning of the book of Numbers, the Israelites took a census of the population, counting the men of military age. The number was 603,350. (Including women and children, that would probably add up to over 2 million.) This week’s portion takes place at the end of forty years of wandering, and features a second population count. During the forty years of wandering, the population of men of military age shrank to 601, 730. There were 1820 less men than before.
The Torah never tells what happened through most of the forty years of wandering while the older population died off and the younger one came of age. One could imagine that the Israelites were fairly demoralized during those years. They could not go into the land but must wander through the desert until the older generation was no more. It is small wonder that a demoralized people had a shrinking population. Often a declining population is a sign of demoralization and lack of purpose.
This brings me to today. Most liberal minded people including most Jews have embraced an ideology of zero population growth. Perhaps God said long ago, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.” But the earth is filled and our large population brings threats of environmental disaster. This is the reason why we have embraced an ideology of having few children. And so most western nations are not replacing themselves.
We Jews are at the forefront of this ideology. Like the Israelites wandering through the desert, our numbers are diminishing from generation to generation. In America, if not for the Jews moving here from Israel, Latin America, Europe, and Russia, our numbers would be way down. As a people we are marrying later and having less kids. Outside the Orthodox community, we are averaging less than two children per family, far less than we need to replace ourselves.
It is not simply Jews who are not replenishing their numbers. Most Western nations are not replacing themselves through births. Often they are dependent on immigration to replace their numbers. The irony of zero population growth is that it is often third world countries with an over population crisis, so first world countries have stopped having children. If there is overpopulation in Africa, not having children in suburban New York will not solve the problem.
By not replacing ourselves, we are creating another difficult problem in Western culture. We have a growing population of seniors who are living longer and longer. Meanwhile, there are less younger people available not simply to replace them but to help care for them. This is the heart of the Social Security crisis in America; less young working people are paying taxes to care for a growing population of seniors. It is small wander that the average age is getting older. And this is particularly true for American born Jews, as is obvious from the membership lists of most synagogues. We as a people, outside the Orthodox, are getting older.
Zero Population Growth is not a healthy policy for a strong people. We need to have children at a level which replaces ourselves. Jews in particular after losing a third of their population in the holocaust, have an obligation to replace themselves and if possible, help their population to grow once again. With full sensitivity to those unable to have children (most of you know that my wife and I dealt with infertility in our marriage), I urge couples to have as many children as they can realistically afford.
There was low morale in the wilderness and I believe that led to low population growth. I imagine once the Israelites were living in the land with a strong sense of self-esteem and purpose, their population exploded. Jews and other Western nations need to recapture that same sense of purpose and grow their population once again.



“Let the Lord, the God of the spirits of all flesh, set a man over the congregation,
who may go out before them, and who may go in before them, and who may lead them out, and who may bring them in; that the congregation of the Lord be not as sheep which have no shepherd.” (Numbers 27:16-17)

I have begun studying philosophy once again. As readers of past messages may have noticed, I am particular intrigued by Friedrich Nietzsche, the great German philosopher who sought to undermine Western religious thinking, particular Christian morality. Sometimes I agree with him, more often I disagree with him, but it is impossible to think about the modern world without confronting Nietzsche.
Much of Nietzsche’s philosophy harkens the ancient Greeks. In The Birth of Tragedy, he presents two ways to view the world, based on two Greek gods. On one hand is Dionysus, the Greek god of wine, who represents passion and emotion. On the other hand is Apollo who represents reason and restraint. To quote one authority, “Nietzsche believed that both forces were present in Greek tragedy, and that the true tragedy could only be produced by the tension between them. He used the names Apollonian and Dionysian for the two forces because Apollo, as the sun-god, represents light, clarity, and form, whereas Dionysus, as the wine-god, represents drunkenness and ecstasy.” Life is a struggle between reason and passion. In Nietzsche’s view, philosophy tends to emphasize reason and analytic thinking at the expense of passion. He wanted to reintroduce the power of passion and raw emotions to Western thinking.
Judaism also provides a choice between reason and passion. Nowhere is this clearer than in this week’s portion. Moses is about to die and a new leader must be chosen to carry the Israelites into the Promised Land. Two men are prominent in the portion; both have the potential of being leaders. On the one hand is Pinchas, Moses’ great-nephew, who in a moment of zealousness killed the ring leaders of an orgy and stopped a terrible plague. On the other hand is Joshua, who was at Moses side on Mt. Sinai and was prepared to take over Moses’ role as teacher of the law. Pinchas represents passion; Joshua represents reason. Who would Moses choose?
There is much to be said for choosing passion. It was clear where Pinchas stood and what he believed. He was prepared to act publicly, without equivocation or restraint. Our passions are part of what makes us human. And yet, Moses chose Joshua, a man who would carefully consider options and ask the question, what is the law? Joshua knew that passion must be reined in by reason. Or to quote the words of Ben Zoma from the Talmud, “Who is strong? Whoever controls his passions.” (Avot 4:1) If Moses knew of Greek culture, he would have said Apollo must overrule Dionysus.
I see this struggle between reason and passion played out constantly in my day-to-day counseling as a rabbi. For example, a young man comes to me madly in love with a young woman. His passions draw him towards her, he is almost out of control. His reason tells him that this relationship is not healthy, she is the wrong one. In his heart reason struggles with passion. Many moderns, in the footsteps of Nietzsche would say, follow your passions. (Think how the movies would handle this story.) Judaism is clear – reason must control passion. I would try with whatever power of persuasion I have to convince the young man not to pursue the relationship.
Another example – a woman is not happy with her boss. Passion teaches to express anger, not to hold it in. She is told by friends to express her feelings and let the chips fall where they may. (Think again of what would happen in the movies.) Reason says that if she loses control she may lose her job, which will hurt her more in the long run. I will try to convince her that reason should overrule passion, particularly if her job is important to her.
In each of us, there is a struggle between reason and passion, between Apollo and Dionysus, between Joshua and Pinchas. To Nietzsche, this struggle was the birth of tragedy. To Moses, this struggle is what makes us human. By choosing Joshua, Moses was teaching us that reason should always control passion. Perhaps that is why Nietzsche disliked Judaism.



“All these you shall offer to the Lord at the stated times, in addition to your votive and freewill offerings.” (Numbers 29:39)

Every synagogue keeps one Torah rolled up to the end of this week=s portion. The Torah contains all the various offerings for the Sabbath and New Moon, for Passover, Shavuot, Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot. This Torah is read on all the festivals throughout the year as the maftir, an extra or additional Torah reading.
When a scribe wants to check whether a Torah is still fit to read, he usually checks out this portion. It is the part of the Torah that always wears out first. And it symbolizes an important insight into the Biblical tradition. At each of the festivals, an extra offering was brought to the ancient Temple. We add an extra service on all these occasions known as Musaf which celebrates this special offering. In Orthodox synagogues, Jews pray for the rebuilding of the ancient Temple so we can offer these gifts once again. In non-Orthodox synagogues, we no longer pray for the rebuilding of the Temple, but we still remember the generosity of our ancestors.
The key issue is that on Shabbat and festivals, there are special offerings. The Torah is teaching that we celebrate by giving. These offerings cost money, and involve a financial sacrifice. A joyous occasion is an excuse to give. We celebrate not by asking for more possessions, but by giving of the possessions we already own. We own things in order to give them away. And at a time of celebration, we show our gratitude by giving something away. Every festival is another opportunity to give.
In our tradition, giving charity is key to our cycle of festivals. On Passover we open the door to our homes and invite the hungry in to eat. On the High Holidays, we turn aside our evil decree through acts oftzedaka (“charity”). On Hanukkah we give gifts to children and also to the needy. On Purim we bring gifts of food to neighbors and friends. The best bar and bat mitzvah celebrations include what many call a mitzvah project, teaching the youngster to celebrate coming of age through acts of giving. To celebrate is to give.
This sense of giving has been lost in our modern age. We are concerned with getting. Our secular celebrations, whether birthdays, anniversaries, fathers and mothers days, Valentines day, or the December celebrations of Christmas and Hanukkah are built around receiving gifts. We are disappointed if we do not receive what we believe is coming to us. In fact, in modern Israel there is a common phrase which one hears too often, magiah li “it is coming to me.” We are focused on ourselves, what we deserve, what the world owes us. It is precisely the opposite of the Biblical attitude.
Experts speak about the high degree of depression during holiday seasons. Drinking, accidents, suicide attempts all increase during time that should be our happiest of the year. The solution is to fill our festivals with acts of loving kindness. For those who are sad at Thanksgiving, go serve dinner at a homeless shelter. Visit people in a nursing home. Take in a lonely neighbor for dinner. Or just give something away. Nothing lifts the spirits like acts of loving kindness.
In truth, this is a wonderful philosophy of life. Many see life as a contest to acquire more and more goodies. “Whoever dies with the most toys wins.” But the best way to celebrate life is by constantly giving things away. Ultimately, we are judged not by what we have, but by what we give. There is no better way to celebrate life.



“Moses spoke to the Lord saying, Let the Lord, source of the breath of all flesh, appoint someone over the community, who shall go out before them and come in before them, and who shall take them out and bring them in, so that the Lord’s community may not be like sheep that have no shepherd.”
(Numbers 27:15-17)

The religious philosopher Reinhold Niebuhr wrote one of my favorite lines, “Nothing worth doing is completed in one lifetime, therefore, we must be saved by hope.” Everything important in life must be done over several generations. That is why our liturgy repeats over and over, l’dor vedor “from generation to generation.”
Our faith does not emphasize individual salvation, how I as an individual will be saved by God. Rather it emphasizes communal salvation, how I am part of a link in a chain, playing a role in a salvation that happens over many generations. Each generation does its share. As Rabbi Tarfon taught in Pirkei Avot, AIt is not our job to finish the task, nor are we free to avoid it altogether@ (Avot 2:21).
Each of us has a task to perform in life. And then we must find a successor, a student, someone from the new generation to take over the task. If we are unwilling to pass the torch to a new generation, we create a situation of “sheep that have no shepherd.”
And yet, how many people do not want to give up power by preparing a younger generation to take over? How often have businesses floundered because the founder never groomed a successor to take over the business? How many synagogues have stagnated because the older generation refused to give up their power and train a new generation? How many parents do not want to let their kids grow up, become adults, and take over? How many of us see ourselves as standing alone, not as part of a chain?
God told Moses that it was time to pass the torch onwards. He would not be permitted to lead his people into the promised land. He must groom a successor to take over and continue his work. It had to be painful for Moses. But he had the wisdom to know that he was part of a chain, his time on earth was limited, and there was still major work to be done.
Who should Moses have picked as successor? I am sure his first choice would have been his own sons, Gershom or Eliezer. We all want our children to carry on our mission in life. But we have heard nothing of Moses’ children since their births; they have certainly not stepped forward and shown any leadership qualitites.
Perhaps Moses’ great nephew Pinchas would have been the right choice. After all the portion is named after him. Pinchas had zealously guarded the Israelite morality through an act of violence. However, anger and passion do not make a positive leader of a people. A more levelheaded leader was required if the people are to be lead with wisdom and insight.
Moses chose his young follower Joshua the son of Nun. He was an inspired man, able to continue the work of Moses. He could lead the people into the promised land while continuing to teach God’s Torah to the people. And so a new generation could continue God’s work.
As we grow older, each of us needs to find who will continue our work. It may be one of our children, a student, or someone we have mentored. We must be prepared to pass the source. Our work will continue on through the generations. And as Niebuhr taught us, “therefore, we must be saved by hope.”



“Take the sum of all the congregation of the children of Israel, from twenty years old and upward, by their fathers= houses, all that are able to go forth to war in Israel.”
(Numbers 26:2)

I am currently rereading a novel that I first read in college, Albert Camus’s The Stranger. It is the story of a man who passively lives his life in reaction to other people. His boss wants him to move from his home in Algiers to Paris, and he replies that it doesn=t matter whether he moves or not. His girlfriend wants to marry him, and he also tells her that it doesn’t matter. He always chooses the easiest path. He is like the ball in a pinball machine, bouncing this way and that way with no volition of his own – until he murders a man on an Algiers beach.
How often do we human beings live lives of passivity, simply reacting to others? How often do we find ourselves defined by other people? How often do we live our lives according to other people’s expectations? How often do we choose the path of least resistance? How often are we objects of other people’s lives, rather than subjects of our own lives?
In this week’s portion, God ordered a second census taken of the Israelite people. Every male from age twenty and up was to be counted, obviously in preparation for a military conquest. The count was made by tribe and by family. People were defined by the tribe they are born into and by the parents who gave birth to them, not by who they really are.
When each of us entered the world, the news was spread with the words, “So and so had a baby.” From our first moment of existence we were defined as somebody’s child. In Jewish tradition we receive a Hebrew name: so-and-so the son or the daughter of so-and-so. From our beginning we receive our identity in relationship to other people.
As we go through life, we are often defined by our relationship to others, both other people and other groups. We are somebody=s son or daughter, somebody’s brother or sister, somebody’s husband or wife, somebody’s mother or father, somebody’s employee, somebody’s boss. We are Americans or foreigners, Jews or Christians, males or females, black or white, Asians or Hispanics. Like the hero in Camus’s novel, we live our lives defined by others.
In his book Landscapes of the Soul, philosopher Douglas Porpora speaks about living our lives as subjects rather than objects, defined by ourselves rather than other people. He begins by discussing the sociologist George Herbert Mead. “According to Mead, when we speak of the self, we must make a distinction between the `I’ and the `me.’ We are each uniquely an `I’ and each uniquely a `me.’ Our me is who we are now. It is our socially created self, the product of our various social positions, various social influences, and our own past choices. In each moment, however, our selves always transcend our me. Our selves are also always an unqualified I, which can self-consciously reflect on the me and move beyond it.” (p. 38)
One of our key tasks as human beings is to stop living simply as a me and became an I. We can not only be objects, defined by other people. We must become subjects, taking control of our own lives and our own destinies. It begins when we move away from our parents and assert ourselves. It is interesting to note that when Abraham left home, he was told lech lecha, literally “go to yourself.” Leaving home was not only about moving out, but finding and taking control of his unique self.
Each of us is unique, unlike any other human being who has ever lived or will ever live, with our own mission and our own destiny. Our lives are not defined by other people, not even our parents. Each of us must become the subject, taking control of our life and forging our destiny.
The Torah teaches that when God created us, God said, “Let us make man in our image according to our likeness.” Why the plural? My favorite answer is that God did not create us alone. We also must take responsibility to create ourselves.



“Pinchas son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the priest, has turned back My wrath from the Israelites by displaying among them his passion for me.” (Numbers 25:10)

The story of Pinchas is extremely difficult for moderns to read and comprehend. God rewarded Pinchas for an act of anger and vengeance. He had slain the ring leaders in an encounter between the Israelites and the Midianites that can best be described as an orgy. For Pinchas, the sexual drive was out of control. Through an act of passion, Pinchas stopped these events. For his effort, he was rewarded with an eternal “Covenant of Peace.” (Numbers 25:12)
For the past two weeks, we have spoken about the evil inclination or yetzer hara. Every human being is born with two inclinations, good and evil. The evil inclination is really our appetites out of control. It is the part of us that says, “I want what I want and I want it now.”
We need our yetzer hara, our evil inclination. Without it, according to Rabbinic tradition, no man would build a house or marry a wife. According to one famous legend, the rabbis once captured the yetzer haraand hid it in a barrel. (Yoma 69a) For three days nothing happened, no one went to work, even the chickens stopped laying eggs. The rabbis had to let the yetzer hara go. This passage teaches that we need our primitive appetites. The goal is to control these appetites, and use them to serve God. As Rashi taught on the Sh’ma, “Serve God with both of your inclinations.”
The Rabbis of the Talmud identified the yetzer hara most strongly with the sexual drive out of control. They realized that the sexual drive is perhaps the most difficult for us to control. Also the more it is used, the harder it is to bring the drive under control. The Midrash teaches that the evil inclination is at first like a spider web, and later like a heavy rope. (Genesis Rabbah 22:6)
The sexual drive out of control can bring on some of our most serious social problems. Family breakdown, sexually transmitted diseases, teenage pregnancy, high rates of abortion, are all the fruits of the sexual drive unleashed.
Like our other appetites, Jewish tradition does not see the sexual drive as inherently evil. On the contrary, sex in the right circumstances, with the right partner, with the right attitude, is a mitzvah, something God wants us to do. In fact it is not only good but holy. Judaism always saw a lifetime of celibacy as sad and a healthy sexual life as important for human well-being. The problem is when the sexual drive is out of control.
Pinchas acted when the Israelites, tempted by the Midianites, forgot about the sexual morality which was central to the Torah=s vision. Today many of us who care deeply about society also see sex out of control. We see it in the lyrics of popular music, the mandatory sex scenes in popular movies, the behavior of top athletes and other celebrities, and even the racy television shows during family viewing time. We see the sexual drive out of control in coed dorms and bathrooms in colleges (remember the lawsuit brought by Orthodox students against Yale because of the dormitory rules), and the casual availability of condoms in high schools.
Once again, we repeat the teaching of Ben Zoma – “Who is strong? Whoever controls their appetite.” Nowhere is this more important than our sexual appetite.



“Say therefore, that I grant him [Pinchas] my covenant of peace.”
(Numbers 25:12)

This portion is named after Pinchas, the grandson of Aaron the High Priest. Pinchas was offered a brit shalom, a special covenant of peace, something God did not do for anyone else. What did Pinchas do to deserve such a high honor? He killed two people in a fit of rage and zealousy.
So who were these two people? Their names were Zimri the son of Salu, an Israelite man, and Cozbi the daughter of Zur, a Midianite woman. They must have been doing something pretty terrible that their death would be awarded so greatly. The answer is that they were having sex. Now Judaism certainly forbids sex in certain situations. But the death penalty! There has to be something more going on here.
In order to understand this strange reward given to Pinchas, we have to understand what the Torah was trying to accomplish. One of the central themes of the Bible is controlling the sexual urge, and using it to build families. The Torah was given into a world where random male sexuality was the norm, women were often marginalized, and children held no intrinsic value. In the pagan world, the sexual drive was out of control.
Into this world of random male sexuality, marginalized female roles, and a lack of intrinsic worth for children, the Torah taught a radically different vision for men, women, and children. Families were to be central. Random sexuality and sacred prostitution were wrong. Men and women were created equal in the image of God. Men were expected to marry, support their wives, and legitimate the children they sire. Procreation was a commandment. Parents were to be honored and siblings were to be guarded. Every child was to be cherished as a blessing from God, while child sacrifice was an abomination. Children were the essential bearers of God’s covenant to a new generation. The Torah’s vision of the family ideal shined forth like a beacon of light into the cruel pagan world.
For forty years of wandering in the wilderness, the Israelites were somehow able to maintain this family ideal. In fact, according to the Midrash (Rabbinic legends), one reason the Israelites were redeemed from Egypt was that they maintained their sexual purity even during the years of slavery. (Leviticus Rabbah 32:5)
Now as they were about to enter the holy land after forty years of wandering, the Midianites brought the biggest challenge to Israel’s faith. They unleashed the sexual drive. They came forth and met Israel not with weapons, but with what can only be considered by moderns as an orgy. And the ring leaders were Zimri the son of Salu and Cozbi the daughter of Zur.
We can begin to understand the reward given to Pinchas. We were dealing with fundamental values of the new Israelite faith. Would pagan sexual practices, or the sexual discipline the Torah requires prevail? The Midianites sought to unleash the sexual drive which has been disciplined by the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai. Wild and random sex threatened the Torah’s image of a stable family life. A man’s sexual drive must be disciplined and directed toward his wife. The pagan fertility cults of the ancient Midianites must be fought without compromise. Pinchas took strong action and was rewarded.
Nobody likes zealots like Pinchas today. However, the message of the portion is still clear. The sexual revolution begun in the sixties unleashed the sexual drive. Recent surveys have shown that college students are far more interested in casual sexual encounters than in either love, long term relationships, or marriage. Sex stopped being a way of building families, and became a form of recreation. With the Playboy philosophy and our hedonistic, feel good culture, we moved a step closer to the pagan world which the Midianites represented.
Perhaps parshat Pinchas is the perfect time to remind us of the fundamental message of the Torah, “therefore a man shall leave his mother and father and cleave unto his wife.” A man is to direct his sexuality towards his wife, a woman towards her husband. They are to live a life of love, loyalty, and fidelity, and raise children imbued with these same values. That was the Torah’s message in Pinchas’ time. And it is still the Torah’s message today.