What’s on God’s mind?

Special to WJW

This week’s Torah portion is Pinchas, Numbers 25:10-30:1.

How do we know what God wants? I have struggled with this question for decades, despite studying Torah regularly, despite being a rabbi. Go back in time with me to Nov. 4, 1995. I was living in Israel on that fateful day.

Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, a role model for me because he stood up for peace, was assassinated at a peace rally in Tel Aviv. Like the millions of people around the world, I cried that day.

When only moments later the police captured the killer, Yigal Amir, not only did he show no remorse, he was jubilant because he firmly believed he was listening to God.

How could that act of terrorism possibly be what God wanted? I firmly maintain that Amir grossly misheard God, and it was not at all what God wanted, even though he quoted from this week’s Torah portion.

Pinchas offers two examples of people trying to determine what God wants. The first is Pinchas himself. God’s wrath at the Israelites brings on a plague and Pinchas impulsively kills an Israelite who is not heeding God’s word and the Midianite woman who was with him. Then, God tells Moses to grant Pinchas a pact of friendship. “It shall be for him and his descendants after him a pact of priesthood for all time, because he took impassioned action for his God, thus making expiation for the Israelites” (Numbers 25:12-13).

What was God thinking? How could Pinchas be rewarded? The reward came not because Pinchas murdered two people. We can understand these verses as God wanting to honor Pinchas’ loyalty. We are meant to be loyal and respectful to God. We are meant to strive for peace. Sometimes, though, the path to peace may be unconventional.

Later, in Numbers 27:1- 11, we see another example of trying to discern God’s wishes. In contrast to the Pinchas story, these verses reflect someone engaging in proper process, trying to do what is right and just. It involves some of my favorite biblical heroines: Mahlah, Noa, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirtzah. Their father, Zelophechad, died. The five daughters want a share in the land, just as property rights would be for males.

The sisters do not try to take land, nor do they remain passive. Instead, they go before Moses, Eleazar the priest, the chieftains and the whole assembly at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting and request an equal parcel of land both for the sake of the land and also so that Zelophechad’s name will not be lost.

What is the answer? Moses does not know. How great that even Moses did not always know what God wanted. So he brings the daughters’ case before God. God answers: “The plea of Zelophechad’s daughters is just: you should give them a hereditary holding among their father’s kinsmen; transfer their father’s share to them” (Numbers 27:7). Then, God adds that any man who has no sons should transfer the property to his daughters.

Mahlah, Noa, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirtzah stand up for justice and for peace. Again, it is rewarded by God. Their way is far preferable to Pinchas’. The daughters ask for justice and it is granted. Furthermore, it is not only granted to them, but to any woman in a similar situation. It is not easy to know what God wants, but it is our task to try and discern so that, we, too, may follow in God’s ways.

Questions for discussion

1. Do you follow in God’s ways? How do you know?

2. Is it easy to follow God?

3. How do we really know what God wants?

Alison B. Kobey is the rabbi of Congregation Or Chadash in Damascus. This column originally appeared in the June 27, 2013, issue.

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