Light from the Sidra

Pinchas (Phinehas)

Torah: Numbers 25:10-30:1(29:40)*. Haftarah: Jeremiah 1:1-2:3

From mourning to dancing

I am starting to write this post on 17th Tammuz, the first day of the momentous ‘Three Weeks’ that last until 9th Av. Historically, the Three Weeks have been days of catastrophe and tragedy for the Jewish people. They are referred to as the period ‘within the straits’ in accordance with Lamentations 1:3: ‘Judah has gone into captivity, under affliction and hard servitude; she dwells among the nations, she finds no rest; all her persecutors overtake her between the straits (or ‘in dire straits’).’

As I write, religious Jews around the world are mourning the fall of Jerusalem. They are forbidden to eat or drink from dawn till dusk as they commemorate five great catastrophes that, according to the rabbis, occurred on this day in Jewish history. During the Three Weeks, no Jewish weddings will be conducted, religious Jews won’t listen to music, cut their hair or shave, and the Haftarah readings will be taken from passages in Isaiah and Jeremiah that foretell the exile of Israel.

The first catastrophe lamented on 17th Tammuz, according to rabbinic calculation, is the smashing of the tables of the law by Moses at Mount Sinai. Second, on this day the daily offerings in the First Temple were suspended because the priests had run out of sacrificial animals during the siege of Jerusalem by the Babylonians. Third, on this day in history the Syrian king Antiochus IV set up an idolatrous image in the Temple. Fourth, on this day in 70 CE, Jerusalem’s walls were breached by the Romans prior to the destruction of the Temple. Fifth, the Roman general Apostamos burned a Torah scroll on this day, thus setting a precedent for the burning of Jewish books throughout the succeeding centuries.

Tisha B’Av – the 9th day of the month of Av – recollects five national calamities that have befallen the Jewish people on that day. First, according to rabbinic reckoning, the divine decree forbidding Israel from entering the Promised Land was issued on 9th Av. Second, on Tisha B’Av in 586 BCE, Solomon’s Temple was razed to the ground by the Babylonian army. Third, on this day in 70 CE, the Second Temple was destroyed by the Roman legions under Titus. Fourth, Shimon Bar Kochba’s revolt against Rome was crushed by the Emperor Hadrian in 135 CE and more than 100,000 Jewish rebels were slaughtered. Last of all, on this day in history the Temple area and its surroundings were ploughed under by the Roman general Turnus Rufus, thus fulfilling the prophecy of Micah 3:12.

Throughout Jewish history other grave misfortunes have occurred on 9th Av, including the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492, the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 and the beginning of the mass deportation of Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto to Treblinka in 1942.

The Three Weeks are a period of repentance because the evils that have befallen the Jewish people during this period in history were not accidental. It was no coincidence that Israel’s two temples were destroyed on precisely the same day 700 years apart. Israel is the Chosen People and with privilege comes responsibility. The Jewish people are in a covenant relationship with the Creator of the universe and under his covenant there are blessings for obedience and curses for disobedience.

The Parasha is like the second of a pair of bookends in the wilderness experience of Israel. The first bookend is Exodus 32, in which judgement came on Israel after they broke God’s covenant by worshipping the golden calf. As a consequence of Israel’s unfaithfulness, 3,000 men of Israel perished by the swords of the Levites. The other bookend is Numbers 25 in which, almost forty years after the incident of the golden calf, the men of Israel take part in a multi-faith service with the Moabites at Peor, which involved the worship of the fertility god Baal. The worship of fertility gods in the ancient world was extremely popular. Services to Baal were far from boring. There were no long sermons, no dull hymns, no yawns among the congregants, no one looking at their watch to see if the service was nearly over. The worship of fertility gods took the form of orgies.

The first in Israel to be punished for this outrage were the leaders of the tribes. They may not all have been involved in the worship of Baal but as heads of the tribes they carried responsibility for what the actions of their tribes. All of them were hung, or impaled, in the sight of all Israel.

Rashi and other commentators suggest the bodies of the heads of the tribes were exposed to public view after being stoned to death. The judges were then instructed to execute all the men who had been involved in the worship of Baal. It seems the actual covenant breakers were few in number but their faithlessness nevertheless brought judgement on the entire people, and the anger of God had to be turned away. The idea that God can be angry is not popular today, neither is the idea that his wrath has to be propitiated by death and impalement. Nevertheless, we see both principles at work twice in Numbers 25. In a sudden and brazen escalation of Israel’s sin, even as the people are grieving over the deaths of their men, a prominent Israelite called Zimri brings his Midianite girlfriend home for a spot of afternoon delight! In rage, Phinehas the priest snatches a javelin, bursts in on the couple and thrusts them through while they are in flagrante. Only then is the wrath of God satisfied and turned away.

This principle of piercing being the means of atonement is repeated in Isaiah 53, in which the righteous Servant of Yahweh takes on himself the sins of Israel and is ‘pierced for our transgressions, bruised for our iniquities, the chastisement of our peace is on him, and by his bruise there is healing to us. All of us like sheep have wandered, each to his own way we have turned, and Jehovah hath caused to meet on him, the punishment of us all’ (Young’s Literal Translation).

In the Haftarah, written about a thousand years after the incident of Baal Peor, God says he is bringing the army of Babylon against Jerusalem: ‘I will utter My judgments against them concerning all their wickedness, because they have forsaken Me, burned incense to other gods, and worshiped the works of their own hands’ (Jer. 1:16). Nothing much had changed in the intervening centuries between the judgement at Baal Peor and the judgement on Jerusalem.

For her sins, Judah went into exile but although many Jews returned seventy years later observant Jews consider Israel to be still in Galut, a term that implies degradation and alienation. Although those who returned from exile rebuilt the temple, the glory of God never returned to it, at least not in the way the Jewish people expected. According to Jewish thinking, therefore, Israel has been in Galut for more than two-and-a-half millennia. Why would God delay his restoration of Israel? If it is a case of Israel being worthy, the experience of more than 3,500 years should show that Israel, however well intentioned, is never going to be worthy.

What the Jewish need is a Redeemer who can provide atonement for them; a true Tzadik who will take responsibility for their guilt and bear the full wrath of God in their place. In short, a totally righteous person who, in the words of Isaiah, will step up to be pierced for their transgressions, be bruised for their iniquities, take on himself the chastisement that brings their shalom, and merits Israel’s healing by his bruises.

And such has happened, if only Israel could see. But, instead, most Jewish people look for a Messiah who depends on them to do the impossible and make themselves righteous in order to merit his appearance. The coming of Messiah can never depend on human merit for, as God says through Jeremiah, ‘Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard its spots? Then may you also do good who are accustomed to do evil’ (Jer. 13:23)

The Messiah has come and he came precisely because Israel was unworthy. He came to be Israel’s righteousness and when Israel finally turns to him in repentance her Thirty Days of mourning will be turned to dancing and her sorrow to joy unspeakable and full of glory.

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