The Waves of Life
Sometimes it is helpful to focus in on the details—this is true in life and in learning Torah. When we pay close attention, we can find deep meaning in the subtleties of a smile or in noticing the filigreed pattern of a leaf’s veins just as we can find profound meaning or beauty in one verse—or even letter—of Torah. For each detail is a fractal, or at least a portion, of a larger reality and truth. Through paying attention to details we can connect to beauty and to meaning.
However, there are also times in which it is helpful to step back and take in the big picture. From afar, we can take a broad perspective in which beauty and meaning emerges through the melting away of detail. From this broad perspective, patterns emerge that would have been invisible if we were only looking at the details.
In this week’s parasha, there are many fascinating details all worthy of close inspection--- but there is also a big view that comes into focus when we step back and look at the pattern that emerges: an oscillation between rupture and order.
1) Num. 25:10-18: Rupture--the brit with Pinchas. Pinchas, the priest who at the end of last week’s parasha had violently killed an Israelite man and Moabite woman who were in the middle of illicit, idolatrous sex, is acknowledged by God and given a brit shalom, a covenant of peace and an esteemed place in the priesthood. The intense passion of Pinchas in response matches the divine wrath and is an intense rupture in an idealized, orderly life.
2) Num. 26:1-65: Order—a census. This is the second census taken in the wilderness; after the violent response to Israelite idolatry, all able boded men over the age of 20 are counted by tribe for the sake of apportioning them a plot in the Land of Israel. In the wake of the violence of Pinchas in response to the dramatic idolatrous act, the narrative settles into a state of order in which people are accounted for.
3) Num. 27:1-11: Rupture and Order—the daughters of Tzelophchad. This episode is a rupture that comes in response to the ordering of a census for the sake of apportioning the land. In a just and ultimately successful claim, the daughters of Tzelophchad, a deceased man who had no sons, ask Moses for the right to inherit the land of their father. This move towards justice ruptured --- and then reordered-- the status quo implicit in the long census and apportionment of land only to male heirs.
4) Num. 27:12-23: Rupture and Order—a succession plan is laid out. Moses is told to ascend to the heights of Avarim where he is told that he will not live to enter the land. The prospect of this leader being absent from his people who are dependent upon him is a true rupture. Moses asks about a succession plan and God tells him to appoint Joshua. A future rupture, Moses’ death, is anticipated and responded to with order—here is what should happen next.
5) Num.28:1—30:1: Order—The calendar of public sacrifices. A long list is given of all the sacrifices that were to take place in the Mishkan (and ultimately the Temple). These sacrifices marked each day, Shabbat and different holidays, giving a sense of rhythm and order to the natural chaos of life.
This oscillation between rupture and order can only be captured when one steps back and looks at the big picture. Further, it reflects an oscillation that is reflective of life. We move from rupture to order and back to rupture again.
Our lives can seem orderly and regular for periods but then move into moments of upheaval and chaos. Some of us experience lives that seem locked in states of order or rupture for long periods, while for others, these states may come and go quickly or may be intertwined within one another.
It is not a foregone conclusion what valence—positive or negative—these states acquire. While some of us seek rupture from stale orderliness, others crave a time of stability and calm. Further, as is shown in this parasha, rupture can be violent and deeply distressing (idolatrous sex and killing in response), or it can be a move towards justice from an unjust status quo (the daughters of Tzelophchad).
Order can be simply a counting for an administrative need (census) or it can be a way of bringing holiness into the everyday (the sacrificial system). Parashat Pinchas, taken as a whole, presents the fullness of this picture, representing all of life, with all of its oscillations and the flow between different states.