Who was Pinchas?
Was he the fiery zealot, who by supporting an aging forgetful Moses carves out his own place in history, or was he merely stepping — unknowingly into a terrifying void, left intentionally — by a Moses who finally refuses to continue playing the role of moral surrogate to his understandably traumatized, but chronically unsupportive cast, no longer willing to enable an ongoing, continously justifiable mediocrity, “Heegeyah zman geulaschem”, it’s time for you to develop your own moral imagination!”
You might ask, “aren’t we taught that Moses simply forgot the law?” The answer of course is yes. But if you read what it says it seems less clear what that actually means. The description of his forgetting seems somewhat oblique. “Nisalma Meemenu.. The law became hidden from him….this might suggest something more intentional on the part of Moses. Moshe remembers the law, Moshe the lawgiver, the embodiment of the law himself was “Nisalma” hidden from the people.
Let’s not forget this was Moishe Rabenu, the first Rebbe, a Baal Shem for the whole world, the one who by placing his hand on Joshua and filling his soul with the glory of his own Hod/ splendor- the energy of the empathy Sefirah, managed to outwit the vagaries of history by resurfacing soulfully into a chosen one in each generation, “Mee — Moshe ad Moshe, spanning generations, a soul that surfaced mysteriously, migrating from one generations Moshe to the next, from one continent to another, each appearing fortuitously, surfacing mysteriously, forcefully, beacons of light illuminating even the bleakest moments, the trusty jumper cables that never failed to restart the stalled engines of the Jewish people.
This “pop up Moshe” understood his people, whether it was Moses of Cordovero, or Moses the son of Maimon, they all knew us better than we could ever hope to know ourselves. These Rebbes knew how to lift us up when we were most in need of being uplifted, but they also knew, as my Rebbe, a leader of the lost and broken survivors of Europe knew, of the even greater need to kindle a light that would remain lit on its own.
Each of them echoed the first Moshe who might have insinuated this to his people “I know your storyline, I know well the contours of your souls haggardness, its paucity of hope, I have witnessed firsthand the deep sadness that lines the heart of the enslaved, those condemned to a lifetime of drinking the bitter waters of hopelessness, trying in vain to satisfy an unquenchable thirst, I know well the way you wake up screaming in terror, drenched in the lingering incurable sorrow of one who feels their end approaching unnaturally, an end that has detoured around the standard starting lines of life — stripped of the tantalizing promise intended to be the standard human experience as it playfully embarks into the promising adverture of new life. The horror of bypassing a beginning even before it begins, hurtling toward a finale stripped of its critical opening act, curtains closing on nothingness.”
There comes a point however when the rescuer chooses to stop rescuing, and becomes “forgetful” choosing to withdraw from the epicenter of a crisis situation.
A great leader can pull his followers out of hell, a greater leader can even smuggle the unworthy in for a backstage peek at the heavens themselves, only a true Rebbe however can show a man how to live here and now on earth, standing on his own two feet. Only the deepest Rebbe can help a man reclaim his own soul. It’s one thing to pull down holiness from the heavens, providing “Lechem Meen hashamayim” as Manna to feed the hungry souls of an entire nation, It’s an even greater feat to restore the soul itself, and teach man to find the “Lechem min haaretz, the bread of the earth.
For me this portion resonates on a personal level and the answer to the question of who is Pinchas seems clear. I am Pinchus and so are you.
I talk here as a Chosid/ follower of the Lubavitcher Rebbe of blessed memory, but this idea is universal. This Hebrew month of Tammuz when we read about Pinchas is also the same month in which my Rebbe passed away twenty one years ago.
Though I am still filled with the sadness of the passing of this most central figure of my life, each year fills me with increased wonder at the sheer genius of what he envisioned, inspiring me with renewed enthusiasm and pride in the gift of playing the small role I am fortunate enough to play, in the continued expansion of this worldwide Jewish phenomenon known today lovingly as Chabad — a Jewish renaissance initiative truly unprecedented in all of history.
Though some of my peers have chosen to pretend to fill the crater like void of his passing by pretending there is no void, I choose to honor him instead by endeavoring to remember how he might expect me to respond to whatever the contemporary reincarnation of Zimri might be. For me, the “hiddeness” of my Rebbe, like the the loss of anything holy and inspiring, means only one thing, that I must now search for the latent continuity of that same inspiration where it lies buried deep in my own soul, to uncover the חיי עולם life force of truth and holiness that is נטע בתוכנו, that has been implanted lovingly in me by him during all the years I was lucky enough to drink from those sweet waters.
This portion is quite powerful in the way it resonates with me as a Shliach, otherwise known in American communities today as “The Chabad Rabbi.” This is also the portion of the Torah that describes the episode of the daughters of Tzlafchad, who fought for the right to receive the inheritance that was due to them.
If the Chabad “Shaliach/emissary” is to draw inspiration to continue his work, even when the “Meshalayach” is “Nisalmah”, if we are to be “Pinchas” and forge ahead with our work, even without the living/ visible presence of the mastermind of the movement and it’s principal architect, then the wives, the Shluchos, are truly the modern day daughters of Tzlafchad, claiming their rightful role as keepers of the flame of our inheritance as well. The Rebbe was way ahead of his time in empowering Jewish women to be leaders, teachers, and co creators of entire communities, as anyone here on the North Shore of Boston who has met Layah Lipsker, Aliza Friedman and Raizel Schusterman can attest to.